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KUSA—Republican candidates vying for the nomination against Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) showed up ready to cut the governor down a peg in a debate in the 9NEWS studios.

The debate was attended by former State Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, and former Congressman Bob Beauprez.

It was the first debate in the race since the list of candidates for the June primary became final.

Jabs between the candidates were kept to a minimum despite concerns about infighting expressed by former congressman Tom Tancredo, the only GOP candidate to skip the debate.

For the most part, the candidates zeroed in on attacking Hickenlooper, something GOP primary voters are eager to see.

The hour-long debate, moderated by 9NEWS anchor Kyle Clark and political reporter Brandon Rittiman, was streamed live on 9NEWS.com and is scheduled to air on channel 20 KTVD on Saturday, April 26 at 7 p.m., and on channel 9 KUSA on Sunday, April 27 at 11 p.m.

The three candidates took jabs at Hickenlooper over his administration's handling of the U.S. 36 partnership, the level of restriction imposed on marijuana products, and gun control.

They also all agreed they would carry out the execution of Nathan Dunlap, the convicted killer granted a temporary reprieve by Hickenlooper.

A distinction between the candidates came on abortion issues, with Kopp saying he supports banning abortion with no exceptions, while Gessler and Beauprez both expressed comfort with exceptions to save the life of the mother.

Gessler told a personal story of his own family's close call with that issue.

Another area where candidates distinguished themselves was Obamacare.

Asked by Rittiman whether they would make Connect for Health Colorado (the state health insurance exchange) work, the candidates took different approaches.

Some candidates seemed focused on ending Obamacare or carving out an exception for Colorado (a feat that would require the federal government's cooperation) while saying they wouldn't support the exchange.

"I don't want to be a party to implementing such bad policy where we're adding a new level of government," Kopp said. "I would do everything that I could to stop the state use of money for the exchange, it's a bad idea."

"I don't support pouring more money down a failed system," Gessler agreed, "And that's really sort of saying 'are you going to re-arrange the deck chairs and make them prettier even though the Titanic is sinking.'"

Beauprez called Obamacare a "horrible idea," but tried to stake out a more pragmatic position.

"The reality though is that we can't wish it away, and none of us could if we were governor. It is the law of the land," Beauprez said. "So the thing we have to do is try to make a bad situation as good as it possibly can be for our citizens until we can repeal it, replace it with something that's much better."

On the topic of civil unions and whether they would sign a repeal of the law, Gessler said it was an "option" that is "on the table," Beauprez said he would not, and Kopp said he would "heartily examine it" because he believes in "traditional marriage."

The candidates were asked to weigh in on the land dispute in Nevada, pitting rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters against the federal government.

The feds attempted to seize Bundy's cattle for nonpayment of grazing fees. Supporters rallied to Bundy's defense in a tense armed standoff with federal agents.

Bundy made fresh headlines Wednesday with comments, reported by The New York Times, that blacks may have been better off in slavery and "picking cotton."

The candidates were not directly asked about Bundy's comments on race and none brought up Bundy's views on race. Asked what they thought of Bundy and his supporters, all offered condemnation of the federal government's actions.

Bundy is "not without fault, Beauprez said, adding, "Government has gone completely mad."

"For heaven's sake, do we need to bring in helicopters and SWAT teams? It looks like martial law has broken out," Beauprez said. "There's got to be a more common sense way to resolve this dispute."

Beauprez said he thought a similar conflict could happen in Colorado.

Kopp said Bundy should have paid his grazing fees but knocked the feds for going "incredibly overboard."

Kopp said, in a similar confrontation in Colorado, as governor he would put himself "between the citizens of the state and the federal government to advocate for the citizens, for the freedoms of the people of my state."

Gessler allowed that Bundy "has his own problems but no one should have treated him quite the way he was treated."

"We do have a Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies where the first thing they're looking to do is hammer people," Gessler said.

The candidates each addressed perceived weaknesses in the race.

Moderator Clark noted that if you type "Scott Gessler" into Google, the top suggested search is "Scott Gessler ethics."

The state's Independent Ethics Commission's found that he violated ethics laws.

Gessler pushed back forcefully.

"We have a corrupt ethics commission in the state of Colorado. It is controlled and dominated and run by Hickenlooper reelection supporters who are personally and financially interested in seeing him re-elected," Gessler said.

Kopp made no apologies for his staunchly conservative voting record in the state legislature.

"I campaigned on issues like cutting taxes, immigration reform, regulatory reform. You know what I did? I actually went to office and advanced those issues," Kopp said.

"I campaign on the things I intend to work on," Kopp said. "I followed up on those promises."

Beauprez invoked a football metaphor when asked if his failed 2006 campaign for governor was really as disastrous as some political observers say.

"If we disqualified everyone who lost a game we'd probably be looking for a new quarterback every season for the Broncos," Beauprez said.

"And no," he quickly added, "I did not just compare myself to Peyton Manning."

"2006 was a difficult year. No doubt about it. But throughout my life, that's not the only mistake I've made. What I've been pretty good at is learning from my mistakes," Beauprez said.

Beauprez said he failed to take into account how difficult it would be to run for office while a member of Congress.

Hickenlooper's campaign released a statement Thursday:

"[Gov. Hickenlooper] looks forward to a positive discussion about the future of our state in the fall," said Brad Komar, campaign manager.

The GOP primary election takes place two months after the debate on June 24.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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