HELENA — Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill square off Tuesday in the first of seven scheduled debates, giving voters a chance to see what the campaigns call sharp differences between the two candidates vying to be Montana's next governor.
The Helena meeting will be the first between Hill, a former congressman, and Bullock, the state's attorney general, 50 days before the Nov. 6 election. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a popular Democrat, can't run again due to term limits.
"It's been a long time since we've had two candidates for governor this far apart on the issues," Hill spokesman Brock Lowrance said Monday. "Montanans deserve an open and honest discussion of the issues and this is what these debates will do."
Bullock spokesman Kevin O'Brien agreed, saying the two candidates have very different philosophies on everything from economic to social issues.
"This is when folks are really starting to tune into the election," O'Brien said. "Montana is a state where voters want to kick the tires and meet the candidates. They want to talk about what's important, they want to hear the candidate's position and they want to give their views."
Hill served two terms in the U.S. House between 1997 and 2001. His campaign has focused on easing rules on energy and business development, creating jobs, reducing taxes, assessing government spending and using natural resource development revenue to help pay for education.
Bullock, a first-term attorney general, has proposed a tax rebate for homeowners, a reduction in the business equipment tax and low-interest loans for public building projects and infrastructure. He has said he would encourage natural resource development, public-private partnerships and small business startups.
The debate is hosted by the Independent Record and will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Helena Middle School Auditorium. Other debates are scheduled for Butte, Billings, Missoula, Kalispell, Great Falls and Bozeman.
The campaigns also are negotiating the possibility of holding two additional debates in northwestern and eastern Montana.
Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender said Tuesday that he has not been invited to participate in any of the seven scheduled debates. He said that is disappointing, but he planned to show up at the Helena debate, anyway.
"I will be down there, even if it's standing outside the auditorium greeting people," he said.