GOP candidates square off

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— Separation was the theme Monday night as the five Republican candidates seeking their party's nomination in the 3rd Congressional District gathered in Grand Junction for the first of three debates before the Aug. 10 primaries.

With just two weeks until voters choose who will face Democrat John Salazar in November's general election, the candidates attempted to differentiate themselves from the rest of the field.

Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino, the only candidate not from the Western Slope, sought to capitalize on his ability to collect independent and Democratic votes.

"I believe I'm the only candidate who can win in November because I'm tried and tested in a Democratic area," Corsentino said, referring to the four elections he has won in an area with a Democratic majority.

Protecting Colorado's water continues to be the campaign focus of state Rep. Matt Smith, who has repeatedly criticized leading campaign fund-raiser Greg Walcher for his support of Referendum A, a 2003 ballot initiative defeated in all 64 Colorado counties.

"The race really comes down to one major subject, and that's water," Smith said. "I am the one Republican (candidate) who stood up when they came after our water."

Without water there's no agriculture, no tourism and no economic future for the 3rd Congressional District, Smith said. "Water is the most precious resource we have," he said.

Walcher defended his record as head of the state's Department of Natural Resources and said he will fight federal threats to Colorado water and work to increase the state's water storage capabilities.

Matt Aljanich, a United Airlines pilot and decorated Gulf War veteran, emphasized his experience in the war on terror.

"This is a defining moment for our generation and our country," said Aljanich, who graduated from Steamboat Springs High School. "This will not go away."

Aljanich called for President Bush to push through an executive order that would immediately implement some of the recommendations made by the Sept. 11 Commission, though he didn't specify which recommendations.

The candidates differed on the extent to which Americans should sacrifice civil rights and privacy in the effort to stop terrorism. Fewer personal freedoms and a little less privacy won't prevent democracy from surviving, Corsentino said.

Rippy advocated profiling in airports, saying it makes no sense to pull aside an 80-year-old grandmother while people who match terrorist profiles are allowed to walk right through security checkpoints.

All five candidates support making Bush's tax cuts permanent. Aljanich went one step further, however, calling for additional tax cuts to foster continued economic growth.

"America was set up for people to enter and follow their dreams," Aljanich said. Hard workers and risk-takers should be rewarded, not punished by tax burdens.

State Rep. Gregg Rippy looked to capitalize on his legislative experience. He said residents of the 3rd Congressional District need a candidate who can be effective from his first day of office.

"The U.S. Congress is not the place for on-the-job training," Rippy said.

Rippy was the lone candidate who said he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Marriage is already defined in the Defense of Marriage Act as the union of a man and woman, he said.

Activist judges have made the issue worthy of a constitutional amendment, Walcher responded. Congress should be the keeper of the nation's values and principles, he said, prompting a loud ovation from the crowd.

Voters should determine whether the issue is worthy of a constitutional amendment, Corsentino said, proposing a nationwide referendum that he said would show strong support for amending the Constitution.

To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234 or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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