DENVER (CBS4) - Gov. John Hickenlooper and challenger Bob Beauprez addressed plenty of economic issues in their governor's debate on Tuesday -- education funding, gas taxes and transportation budgets -- but emotional social issues dominated the stage and stretched tempers.
Beauprez not only hammered at Hickenlooper's decision to delay the execution of Nathan Dunlap, calling the governor's choice to spare the killer -- at least for now -- "kicking the can down the road." He also asked Hickenlooper if he would grant Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes the same temporary reprieve should he be convicted and sentenced to die.
Hickenlooper said he couldn't answer a hypothetical question because issues raised during Dunlap's trial and penalty phase created so many complexities germane only to that case that he couldn't apply the same reasoning to a potential execution for Holmes.
Beauprez retorted that "there is nothing mysterious" about the issue.
"Do you really want to support executing people who have mental illness?" Hickenlooper asked. "It's a valid question to be asking."
The debate -- the candidates' second -- was hosted by The Denver Post.
In his closing statement, Beauprez addressed the Dunlap case again, saying that people have their own reasons for opposing the death penalty, but when the governor didn't grant full clemency, he was middling on the issue.
"That's the problem people have with John Hickenlooper. He can't seem to make the tough call," Beauprez said. "They won't be rejoicing when I, as your next governor, enforce the law in Colorado and see justice served."
Hickenlooper said he was swayed by a conversation with Charles Chaput, the former archbishop of Denver.
"I still think the government shouldn't be taking people's lives," he said. "The Old Testament is eye for an eye and the New Testament is all about forgiveness. And only God has a right to take a life. That thought is worthy of discussion."
Hickenlooper also countered that the Dunlap case contains too many complexities to warrant a simple decision on capital punishment.
"I haven't changed my opinion from what was in the executive order from a year and a half ago. We all deal with our god in different ways, but I don't think the government should be taking another person's life. Regardless, Nathan Dunlap is going to die in prison," Hickenlooper said.
He cited the costs of appeals, that some families are divided on the execution and that capital punishment, he said, is not a deterrent: "We're spending all this money and making so many of the victims so unhappy and dragging this on for decades. To what benefit?"
In August, Hickenlooper stoked the flames over his decision when he told CNN that he could hypothetically commute the punishment for Dunlap, who murdered four at an Aurora restaurant in 1993, if he lost the election.
Meanwhile, Hickenlooper asked Beauprez, who is pro-life, if he would support publically funding contraception programs if they resulted in a reduction in the teenage pregnancy and abortion rates.
"I have no problem with people using contraceptions. I have a big problem with publically funding contraceptions that are actually abortifacients," Beauprez said. "The devil might be in the details, but I think it's an important distinction to draw."
Hickenlooper also asked why Beauprez was pro-life but opposed to this year's so-called "personhood" amendment that would change the criminal code to apply to unborn children.
"You have switched on personhood in this election," the governor said.
"I am opposed to the personhood amendment," Beauprez countered.
"I said that," Hickenlooper interjected.
"You said personhood. There's a big difference," Beauprez retorted.
Another charged issue -- negative attack ads in the campaign -- also monopolized much of the debate.
At the midway point, Hickenlooper asked Beauprez -- and offered a handshake in a seemingly spontaneous gesture -- if his campaign would stop buying negative ads against Hickenlooper.
Beauprez seemed surprised and hesitated for a few seconds but then accepted Hickenlooper's handshake. He didn't elaborate, however, and it's unclear whether his camp will abide by the impromptu request.
Hickenlooper said he has refused to fund negative attack ads since he ran for mayor in 2003.
But outside groups -- including the governors associations for each party -- have deployed attack ads nonstop, so it's unlikely there will be fewer negative spots.
"These attack ads are cancer," Hickenlooper said. "People are turning off the news. They're not paying attention, especially kids."
Both candidates raised economic issues during the debate. As Beauprez criticized Colorado's recovery from the Great Recession and said the governor hasn't done enough to help residents, Hickenlooper defended his record.
Beauprez said Hickenlooper should have supported the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, removed unnecessary business regulations and fought for more federal tax-dollar refunds to Colorado. He also accused Hickenlooper of overseeing a slower recovery when other western states are rebounding more vigorously from the recession.
"They're getting government out of the way," Beauprez said of other states, adding that he could supply "a whole plethora of economic reports that show Colorado falling to the middle of the pack in economic opportunity."
Hickenlooper argued that Colorado's drop in unemployment has reached 4 percent since the recession while neighboring states have average 2.2 percent.
"This is ridiculous to say we're not succeeding compared to our neighboring states," he said.
The race tightened considerably even before the candidates' first debate on Sept. 6 in Grand Junction.
By mid-July, Beauprez drew to within a couple percentage points of Hickenlooper, according to an aggregation of polls by RealClearPolitics.com. On Sept. 17, a Quinnipiac poll showed Beauprez jumping to a 10-point lead. He now leads Hickenlooper by an average of 1.8 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics. The race is widely considered a toss-up.
Beauprez lost a bid for governor in 2006 to Bill Ritter. He represented Colorado's seventh congressional district from 2002 to 2007.
Hickenlooper was elected in 2010 after serving as two terms as Denver's mayor.
- Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com.
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