Attorney General Tim Fox, Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, left, and state Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell.

The Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee voted Monday night to delay a GOP governor primary forum because not all candidates could attend. But two of the candidates said Tuesday they still plan to debate Nov. 26 in Helena.

On Monday, the campaign of Attorney General Tim Fox, one of the three Republicans running for governor, announced a debate to be held Nov. 26 and sponsored by the central committee. A press release said Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski, another candidate, would participate, but U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the third candidate, could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.

However, a member of the central committee said Monday night the group voted to delay the forum. Fox and Olszewski, however, said they still plan to hold a forum Nov. 26 in Helena, though it will not be sponsored by the central committee.

Committee chair Lori Hamm did not immediately return a call from Lee Newspapers Tuesday seeking comment about the vote to delay the forum.

On Monday, the Fox and Gianforte campaigns sparred over the scheduling of the debate, which Gianforte said was done in a way that precluded his participation. Fox's campaign countered that Gianforte was finding excuses to not participate.

Hamm said the candidates tried to pick a date that worked for all of them. She said the central committee knew when it invited candidates to the Nov. 26 forum that it was unlikely Gianforte could attend.

“We certainly appreciate the central committee’s decision to find a date that works all the candidates,” Jake Eaton, a spokesman for Gianforte’s campaign, said Tuesday. “That’s what we wanted from the beginning is to have an opportunity for everybody to participate.”

The three candidates sat down in Helena earlier this fall to discuss dates and formats for the forums. Fox earlier this year called for 10 primary debates, saying Montanans needed to hear from candidates in these types of forums early and often.

Fox's campaign said Tuesday that it feels it's important to hold debates starting as soon as possible to give voters access to the candidates' stances on issues.

"Leadership is about having the character and integrity to share with voters your vision and ideas, not making excuses," Fox campaign manager Jack Cutter said Tuesday. "There are a million people in Montana, and it is important every voter has the opportunity to hear the candidates speak on Montana issues and how they will protect conservative Montana values. Voters expect and deserve this respect from all candidates."

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Cutter said "debates provide an opportunity for voters to ask questions and be a part of our democratic process," and that's why Fox and Olszewski agreed to still hold a forum Nov. 26 in Helena. It's unclear who will sponsor that event.

Eaton said Tuesday that starting the process in January, when the candidates have committed to a forum in Yellowstone County, gives enough time for voters to engage before the June 2 primary.

Earlier this year, Fox's campaign sent a letter to Gianforte and Olszewski asking each to commit to 10 primary debates. Olszewski said he was open to the idea. Gianforte's campaign said it looked forward to debating but did not commit to what Fox called for.

Gianforte shook up the GOP primary and caused a ripple effect through statewide Republican candidates in June when he announced that instead of seeking reelection to the U.S. House, he would launch a bid for governor. Fox had already announced his campaign in January. Olszewski also announced his run for governor in January. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton also said in January he wanted to be governor, but switched to the U.S. House race after Gianforte joined the governor primary.  

Gianforte has raised just over $1 million since announcing more than four months ago, according to campaign finance reports filed in October. He's loaned his campaign $50,000. Fox is next in the money race, pulling in about $460,000. Olszewski trailed at almost $180,000, though $100,000 is his own money.