BOZEMAN — Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill met Saturday for a final debate that was at times tense as the gubernatorial candidates aggressively made their case to voters 10 days before the election.
Bullock set the tone with his very first response by attacking Hill for keeping a disputed $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party after an appeals court blocked a federal judge's order throwing out the state's campaign contribution limits.
Bullock, the state's attorney general, called Hill's refusal to return the donation illegal.
"No one in Montana is above the law," Bullock said. "Not a common criminal, not a crooked CEO and not a former congressman who's running for governor."
Hill responded that it was legal and ethical for him to accept the donation, which was made while U.S. District Judge's order was still in effect and the $22,600 political party contribution limit lifted.
The former congressman said he spent that money on positive television ads, while more than $3 million in third-party money has been spent on ads attacking him.
"It was transparent, it's legal and we will be vindicated in the end," Hill said.
Bullock is suing Hill over the donation, and a state judge has issued a temporary restraining order blocking Hill from spending any more of the money and forcing him to cancel ads already purchased with it.
A court hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Both candidates used Saturday's televised debate to draw differences between each other in sharp tones and occasional interruptions.
Hill said he would fix the state's poor regulatory and legal climate to encourage business in the state and keep its residents from seeking work elsewhere.
Bullock said he was optimistic about building off the state's current success and called Hill a "Chicken Little" who says everything is broken and can't be fixed.
The two even disagreed over the points they agreed on. Both said they opposed a sales tax and would veto such a tax if the Legislature passed one, though Bullock accused Hill of changing his position on the issue.
Hill flatly denied ever supporting a sales tax this campaign and said accused Bullock of trying to fabricate an issue that has wrongly portrayed his position in third-party ads.
"Steve, you can have your dogs quit running ads lying about this," Hill said.
The two also traded barbs over each other's records, with Hill saying Bullock has a failed record as attorney general and Bullock responding that Hill was an ineffective congressman and a bad boss.
Hill and Bullock are locked in a close race to succeed Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who cannot run again due to term limits.
Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender was not invited to participate in the debate.