The format of Monday night's gubernatorial debate kept the four would-be governors to a staccato rhythm and the confines of time.
Occasionally, each scored his barbed aside.
They covered a lot of issues ground without plowing any new furrows.
Green Robert Kelleher, Republican Bob Brown, Libertarian Stan Jones and Democrat Brian Schweitzer responded to 15 questions in less than an hour in front of a full house of about 250 citizens who gathered at the Mary Alice Fortin Health Conference Center at Deaconess Billings Clinic.
With the respondent limited to one minute and his opponents to 30 seconds of rebuttal, the candidates had to stay on topic or get cut off when they overran the clock. Debate moderator Janice Munsell, of the Billings League of Women Voters, brooked no verbiage excess.
It took a couple of rounds before the candidates tailored their responses to brevity, but once the rhythm kicked in, it worked.
A question to Schweitzer for his stand on election day voter registration drew a yes, "right up to the day" of the election. He used his time to criticize "higher and bigger fences" placed on those who wanted to vote. He said there was no need for the 30-days-before-election deadline for registering and hit Brown, the secretary of state, for being responsible for 90,000 Montanans being purged from the rolls since the last general election.
Jones said, "It is a bad idea. There is an opportunity for fraud." He said it was not unreasonable to prove one is a citizen of Montana prior to the election.
Brown said election-day registration invites fraud, that the integrity of the process needs to be protected and the voter identification process worked well in the June primary.
State law recited
Kelleher reminded Schweitzer that state law requires election officials at the county level to purge the rolls of those who fail to vote in three successive general elections and that Bob Brown had nothing to do with it.
On several questions Kelleher and Jones returned to their philosophical principles: Establish a parliament and claim the rights to the subsurface mineral rights for the state by the former and get the government out of every aspect of citizens' lives by the latter.
In a robust closing statement, Jones said America is becoming a socialist police state. He called for dramatic change so U.S. citizens can reclaim their constitutional rights not to be controlled and harassed by their government.
"We're being suffocated," he said. He blamed both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Kelleher said if he were governor he would refuse to sign the document allowing Montana National Guard members to be called up for the war in Iraq.
"All our troops are illegally in Iraq," he said.
Brown kept to his themes of education priority, development of natural resources and marketing of Montana's natural beauty.
Schweitzer, too, returned to issues of health care and prescription drugs and his bipartisanship by having Sen. John Bohlinger, R-Billings, as his running mate.
"Times will be different (at the Legislature)," he said, referring to a cooperative effort aimed at both sides of the aisle.
All, except Kelleher, said they would audit and justify every state expense to cut spending and enhance efficiency.
Kelleher said he would increase taxes, especially on out-of-state wealthy people with homes in Montana so he could increase spending on children in need.
For affordable health insurance, Schweitzer and Brown supported insurance pools for the low-income because it is less expensive than the cost shifting to those who now have insurance.
Kelleher suggested compacts with Alberta to get cheaper prescription drugs, while Jones said government coercion of insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions has made insurance premiums unaffordable.
Brown denied he had a Republican philosophical inconsistency because he opposed medical marijuana and a state constitutional amendment opposing gay marriages. He said marijuana was a narcotic legalization was not a step in right direction.
Jones said the government should stay out people's personal lives, while Kelleher said drug use among the young in California declined after medical marijuana was legalized there.
Schweitzer said the state already has a law on the books protecting marriage as between one man and one woman. He said he thought medical marijuana was a "gateway drug" to other drug use.
Kelleher said education, including at the university level, should be free. Jones would privatize all schools. Brown and Schweitzer both promised more investment in education. On a related subject of keeping Montana students in-state when they graduate, Jones would enact a comprehensive sales tax and remove all other taxes to encourage business to come to Montana. Kelleher ignored the question and talked about the how the railroad was harming Montana agriculture, while Schweitzer touted the need for specialized technical training to attract business. Brown said Montana's business climate is improving with lower business equipment, income and capital gains taxes being enacted by the Republican controlled legislatures of the past decade.
Schweitzer was asked about doing business in Montana. The Democratic nominee has taken heat for going out of state to buy pickup trucks while saying he supports small businesses.
Brown said keeping personal spending in-state would help businesses earn a profit and thus reduce prices. Kelleher complained that a single mother earning minimum wage had to work 75 hours a week just to make it and that elections should be about issues not personalities.
Jones said Schweitzer was smart; "He buys where it is the cheapest. If taxes in Montana were gone, it would be cheaper to buy it here."
Schweitzer called Brown inconsistent because state law requires state purchases to be at the best price wherever they are found.
In a question related to using the Coal Tax Trust fund, Schweitzer accused Brown of another inconsistency in opposing a bill in 1991, but now promoting a plan to use it.
"He (Brown) was right in '91; he's wrong today," Schweitzer said. "Don't bust the trust. It is a great legacy and investment."
Kelleher said the coal belongs to Montanans and they should have the rights to all of it. Jones said get rid of the trust and use the funds going into to run government.
Brown said taking the $15 million that flows into the trust annually and investing it in infrastructure projects leveraged with matching funds from the federal government would be a better use of the money now.
He said he does not want to break into the corpus of the trust which is in excess of $700 million, but only the annual flow.
To do that requires a three-fourths vote of both chambers of the Montana Legislature.
Brown said after the debate he believes he can accomplish that now, pointing to a successful change in the school lands trust that he and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, got through the 2001 session.
The debate Monday night was sponsored by the Billings League of Women Voters, Montana Nurses Association and Billings Outpost.
Questions were posed to the candidates by David Crisp, editor of the Billings Outpost, and Lynne Turner Fitzgerald, director of local cable Community Channel 7. Munsell posed written questions from the audience.
It was broadcast live by KSVI Channel 6 television.