HELENA — Abortion and pro-life issues ignited the most sparks at the first debate among four of Montana’s Republican U.S. House candidates Monday night, as the contestants sparred over their pro-life records.

Former state Sen. Ryan Zinke, of Whitefish, said he’s “pro-life,” but that he doesn’t believe the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion will be overturned, so other steps should be taken to reduce abortion, such as education.

His remarks prompted Sen. Elsie Arntzen, of Billings, to ask why an abortion-rights group had supported him when he was a state senator.

Zinke said he’s been endorsed in the congressional race by an official of Montana Right to Life, and that he supported parental notification for minors seeking an abortion.

“I don’t tell you things because that’s what you want to hear; I tell you things because it’s the truth,” he told the Republican crowd in Bozeman. “I value life.”

State Sen. Matt Rosendale, of Glendive, then chimed in to say he was the only candidate who “respects the sanctity of life from conception all the way to natural death,” because he opposes abortion and the death penalty.

“To segment out (a pro-life stance), to parcel it out, is to short-change it,” he said.

Rosendale’s statement brought a retort from former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, of Billings, who said opposing the death penalty “is not a Montana value,” and rather was “an East Coast value that (Rosendale) brought with you from Maryland.”

Rosendale grew up in Maryland and said he started traveling in Montana some 20 years ago, and moved here because he shares the “values and principles of the people who are living here.”

“You don’t get to choose where you were born; you only get to choose where you live,” he said.

All four candidates are running for Montana’s open U.S. House seat, which is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who’s running for the U.S. Senate.

Monday marked the first time the four candidates had squared off in a public debate, which was on the Montana State University campus and sponsored by the MSU College Republicans.

A fifth Republican in the race, Drew Turiano, of Helena, was not invited to the event.

Two Democrats also are running for the seat: John Lewis and John Driscoll, both of Helena.

The four Republicans fielded questions from a moderator for most of the evening, but had at least one chance to ask questions of each other.

They agreed on most issues, such as supporting more resource development and decrying the federal debt, but tried to stake out some unique ground.

Rosendale said he’s a strong supporter of school choice, such as charter schools, and that he’d consider incremental changes to strengthen Social Security, such as raising its payout age or, eventually, allowing people to invest their own contributions.

He also noted that he’s been endorsed by 50 fellow state legislators, because of his strong record supporting property rights, gun rights and “the sanctity of life.”

Stapleton said he’s been endorsed by former Gov. Judy Martz, whom he called a “great governor and a great lady,” for cutting income taxes and controlling state spending. He pointed to his leadership role in the Senate, saying he “stood up to the liberals in Helena.”

Zinke said he’ll push hard for energy development, because he believes America can become energy-independent within five years, preventing foreign entanglement over oil and gas.

“I don’t want my kids to fight for foreign oil when we have it here,” said the former Navy Seal commander.

Arntzen noted that she sponsored a bill last year that could have allowed the Legislature to block “common core” education standards, but that Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed it.

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