The four Republican candidates for governor bad-mouthed one another in the early minutes of Monday night's debate, then tried to move past the controversy that has enveloped the race for the past two weeks.
Moderator Bill Goodman, host of Kentucky Tonight, began the KET debate by asking Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer if he could say "unequivocally and without any doubt in your mind that you have told the truth" about allegations that Comer physically and mentally abused his college girlfriend.
"Yes, sir," Comer responded. "It's unfortunate that something like this would come out two weeks before the primary."
Marilyn Thomas has alleged in a letter to The Courier-Journal that Comer hit her, belittled her, made a threatening phone call to her mother and accompanied her to an abortion clinic in the early 1990s. She did not file a police report at the time.
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Comer noted that he and his wife, TJ, held a new conference in which he denied the allegations and that he had participated in a number of interviews since then.
"I'm glad this is behind us," Comer said. "And now we're gonna close this campaign out talking about the issues."
Goodman then asked Louisville businessman Hal Heiner whether his campaign had anything to do with the introduction of the allegations into the campaign.
"Absolutely not," Heiner said.
The Herald-Leader has reported previously that Heiner's running mate, KC Crosbie, and her husband, Scott Crosbie, communicated last fall with a Lexington blogger who for months circulated the allegations that Comer abused his ex-girlfriend.
In noting he has been campaigning for 62 weeks, Heiner said: "From the beginning of this campaign until now we've been talking exclusively about what's possible for the future of Kentucky. We've run a positive campaign."
Heiner did say that "domestic abuse is a serious issue, but that's between Jamie Comer and Ms. Thomas."
"We've had no involvement whatsoever in the fact that this young lady felt the need to come forward," Hein er said.
Comer has accused Heiner's campaign of offering money to people who would make accusations against Comer, but he has provided no evidence to support the claim.
Without specifically mentioning the recent controversy, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin said the Heiner campaign had "decided to soil the bed, and it's a shame."
"Up until about a month ago, we were having a good civil discourse," Bevin said.
Bevin, who has been highly critical of a pro-Heiner super PAC that is run by Hein er's former campaign manager, said that because the "slandering of other candidates took place it discourages people from turning out."
"And it's bad for Kentucky. It's bad for the GOP and frankly it's bad for America," Bevin said.
Heiner responded by recalling Bevin's unsuccessful run against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year's Republican primary, saying that "once again he's trashing Republicans."
"He's done nothing quite frankly but trash other Republicans for the past two years," Heiner said.
Beginning late last week, Bevin moved to try to take advantage of the hostile exchanges between Heiner and Comer, running an ad called "Food Fight." It features actors playing the parts of Hein er and Comer, sitting at a children's table and throwing food at one another.
Heiner referenced the ad as evidence that Bevin is running a negative campaign.
"He's done nothing but attack," Heiner said.
Comer shot back, telling Goodman that he didn't "think Hal Heiner has the moral authority to attack anyone."
Recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott continued his efforts to stay out of the mud, telling Goodman that he had "made it clear that I don't discuss yesterdays."
Comer said that he thinks voters will be the ultimate jury and that polling he saw over the weekend had left him "confident that people believe me."
Goodman said he wanted to move on to issues, leading the candidates in discussions of Common Core education standards, early childhood education funding and teacher pay and pensions.
The candidates spoke at length about their plans to address the unfunded liabilities plaguing the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System.
Scott continued to argue that allowing casino-style gambling at racetracks would help pay for the retirement system. Heiner said he wanted the system to move new hires to a defined-contribution plan, similar to 401(k) plans offered in the private sector. Comer said he wanted to privatize management of the retirement system, change the benefits for future hires, raise the retirement age and "dedicate a source of revenue to go solely into the retirement system."
Bevin also called for a 401(k)-type plan for new hires and moving away from defined benefits.
Goodman also asked the candidates what they thought a reasonable household income was for a family of four.
After some hemming and hawing, Bevin said $10,000 a person, Scott said $50,000 to $60,000, Heiner said $40,000 to $50,000 and Comer said $45,000 should be "the bare minimum."