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Four Ky. GOP governor candidates make pitches in TV debate

 From left, Somerset, Ky., Mayor Alan Keck, Kentucky State Auditor Mike Harmon, Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron prepare for the start of the Kentucky Gubernatorial GOP Primary Debate in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Associated Press
Timothy D. Easley
From left, Somerset, Ky., Mayor Alan Keck, Kentucky State Auditor Mike Harmon, Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron prepare for the start of the Kentucky Gubernatorial GOP Primary Debate in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

LOUISVILLE — Four of the candidates running in Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial primary staked out positions Tuesday night on medical marijuana legalization and whether the state's anti-abortion laws should be relaxed to allow more exceptions to the near-total ban.

They took turns advocating conservative themes in a televised debate, supporting income tax cuts and parental input in schools and stating their opposition to abortion.

Daniel Cameron, Ryan Quarles, Alan Keck and Mike Harmon also took potshots at Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and President Joe Biden during the hourlong debate ahead of the May 16 primary. The winner of the GOP primary — which includes a dozen candidates — will advance to the general election in November. Beshear is seeking a second term.

The four candidates were asked if they support more exceptions to Kentucky's abortion law.

Keck, the mayor of Somerset, acknowledged he struggled with the issue, saying he concluded he has “to be frank and trust my heart.”

“While I’m absolutely pro-life, I do believe there should be some exceptions,” he said. “And that’s not because I minimize the life of that child. It’s because I think there has to be some consideration for the woman in the event of violent trauma to them, especially in adolescence.”

The other three candidates said they support the current law — which bans abortions except when carried out to save the life of the mother or to prevent disabling injury. It doesn't include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

While acknowledging the “delicacy of this issue,” Cameron said it's “important that we look out for the most vulnerable in our population — those that are in the womb.” As Kentucky's attorney general, Cameron has defended the state's anti-abortion laws in court.

Quarles, the state's agriculture commissioner, said he celebrates life — from conception until "natural death.” Harmon, the state auditor, said it was the abortion issue that drew him into politics. He declared that “every life is precious.”

Kentucky's Supreme Court recently refused to halt the near-total ban but sent the case back to a lower court for further consideration of constitutional issues.

The candidates were asked whether Kentucky should legalize medical marijuana.

Legalization efforts have stalled for years in the state legislature, and the latest effort hasn't advanced yet this year. The issue divided the four GOP hopefuls Tuesday night.

Cameron said he has concerns but added he's “open to having this conversation." Harmon said he's “not there yet” but also added he's “open to discussion.”

Quarles and Keck expressed support for legalization. Quarles, who recently endorsed making medical marijuana legal, said: "I want to work with our leaders in both the House and Senate, bring in the medical experts as well, and get it done right,”

Keck said the issue was an example of Kentucky lagging behind.

“This is medicine,” Keck said, “That’s how we would pass it. That’s how we would regulate it."

Afterward, Democrats said the Republicans didn't provide a single reason why Kentuckians should vote Beshear out of office.

"While Gov. Beshear has a long list of accomplishments that are helping people and creating opportunities for Kentuckians ... tonight I did not hear the GOP candidates talk about policies or actions that would improve the lives of Kentucky families,” Kentucky Democratic Party chair Colmon Elridge said in a statement.

The GOP candidates also used the airtime to introduce themselves to a larger audience or to reinforce the themes they've pressed during the campaign.

“I know many of you might be asking, ‘who in the heck is this Alan Keck guy?'” Keck said. “And I’m confident that in time I will emerge as a candidate who's authentic, who's excited and who's transparent. And who's going to bring a message of hope and opportunity to our commonwealth.”

Quarles told Kentuckians that "I'm one of you'' and pointed to the work ethic he gained while growing up on his family's farm.

“I was taught lessons at a young age that if you want something in life, you have to go out and earn it and not wait for the government to send you a paycheck,” Quarles said.

Cameron touted his endorsement from former President Donald Trump and his efforts as attorney general to challenge Beshear and Biden policies in court. He also emphasized his defense of the state's strict anti-abortion laws.

“And there's only one candidate that has gotten abortion facilities closed since last August. I'm that candidate,” Cameron said

Harmon portrayed himself as the most experienced candidate, pointing to his time as a state lawmaker before he became a statewide officer. He slammed Beshear for focusing on “fear over freedom” with his coronavirus-related restrictions during the height of the pandemic. Beshear says his actions saved lives.

Twelve candidates are competing for the Republican nomination.

The Kentucky campaign is drawing national attention to see if the popular Democratic incumbent can overcome his party’s struggles in the GOP-trending state.

The debate was hosted by the Jefferson County Republican Party and shown on Spectrum News 1. The local party said invitations to candidates were based on fundraising totals and criteria it set forth. Another GOP candidate, former United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft, declined to participate in the debate.

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