The two men who want to be Colorado's next governor squared off Friday at the 2018 Gubernatorial Candidate Forum in Denver, kicking off debate season for this closely watched race.

The forum provided the first opportunity for Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton to present their views on several issues and challenges that will face the next governor.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce sponsored the forum, along with several local business groups, who made up most of the audience. The business groups submitted the questions, which concentrated heavily on business and the state economy.

Moderator Ed Sealover, politics reporter at the Denver Business Journal, focused his questions on the wide range of challenges that will face the next governor, from sustaining the robust state economy and ensuring it benefits everyone, tackling a housing affordability crisis, repairing – and paying for – crumbling roads, oil and gas development, public school funding, and bridging the urban-rural divide.

Stapleton, who serves as State Treasurer, was eager to draw sharp contrasts between himself with Polis, whom he painted as a radical and extremist several times. Polis was more measured and refrained from sharply criticizing Stapleton or his policies and record.

Out the gate, 70 seconds into his opening statement, Stapleton went after Polis, who represents the Boulder area in Congress. Stapleton started by listing several priorities and his plans for them. Then he said, “None of these goals will be possible to continue Colorado on a positive trajectory if Congressman Polis is elected governor. Because he represents the most radical, extreme departure from Colorado that we have ever had.”

Polis did not take the bait, and instead opened by explaining how his business and technology background have prepared him for the governor’s mansion.

Sealover asked each candidate how their priorities might vary from those in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s current budget proposal, which the new governor will inherit.

Polis said his administration would prioritize education, particularly early childhood education. He said preschool and full-day kindergarten have become unaffordable for too many families, and increased funding for the programs should come from the general fund.

Stapleton responded that the federal tax cuts, which he supported, would help put Coloradans first. He would prioritize road and infrastructure.

Healthcare

Both candidates said they prioritize lowering health care costs and increasing access. But they differ on how to accomplish this. Stapleton said he wants to stabilize Medicaid, arguing that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act made the program inefficient and bloated. Polis said that his plan would reduce the state costs that it pays into healthcare and the money saved could be reinvested in schools and roads.

Polis emphasized his business experience providing health insurance to employees, and said he can empathize with businesses where health insurance is one of the primary driver of costs. He touted his 100-day plan to reduce prescription costs, called for the state to enforce consumer protections and said disparities in rural health care need to be reduced, in part through telemedicine.

When asked about his calls for universal health care, Polis called it his North Star.

"Of course, I won’t give up until we have a system where everybody gets coverage,” he said. “We have made great progress toward that with the Affordable Care Act. I think we are likely to be one of the first states that get there over the next decade, if I have the opportunity to serve as governor.”

In contract, Stapleton called for more choice in the health insurance marketplace, saying competition lowers costs. He said young, healthy people should pay higher deductibles so they can qualify for plans with lower premiums.

Roads

Stapleton decried what he called an incremental approach to infrastructure repair over the last several years.

He said he wants to tax sports gambling to help pay for road improvements. He estimated that Colorado could raise $1 billion for road infrastructure this way. Any such plan would have to wait until Colorado lawmakers approve a sports gambling industry.

Stapleton called for making changes to how marijuana is taxed so th at its tax revenues can be diverted to roads. Under the State Constitution, marijuana tax revenues go to prevention, enforcement, education and school construction.

Polis said he supports “creative financing mechanisms” for transportation because Colorado cannot expect financial support from the federal government. He said he would create broad coalitions to develop a roads and infrastructure plan.

Polis criticized Stapleton’s proposal to tap into sports gambling taxes, saying they would not generate enough revenue. And he said that redirecting marijuana tax revenue to roads would take away funding for school construction.

Energy Policy

Polis said that the state plays an important role in regulating the oil and gas industry, but said Colorado needs to formalize policies with municipalities and counties over the control they have over oil and gas development.

He called the current system a “gray area” that often results in court challenges that do not benefit communities’ health or the industry. “I look forward to working with the legislature, county and city governments, the industry, as well as environmental groups to try to get that done,” Polis said.

Stapleton said he supports an “all the above” energy policy, and mocked Polis for saying he has an all- the-above energy that excludes fossil fuels. Stapleton said he supports renewable energy incentives, but said it is not feasible for Colorado to have a 100 percent renewable energy plan.

Stapleton said consumers should dictate and be able to choose the energy they use. “I am not going to put a government mandate like Congressman Polis [would] on their heads,” he said. “That is a radical, extreme policy that I simply can’t support.”

Growth and economic development

Both candidates were at their feistiest when it came to discussing their vision for Colorado’s economic growth. They each took jabs at the other.

Stapleton started off by saying he wants to keep oil and gas industry and healthcare jobs in Colorado, and does not “want to trade those jobs for the fantasy of Tomorrow Land, like Congressman Polis, … with the promises of jobs tomorrow. But he will wreck Colorado’s economy and bust our budget today.” Stapleton touted the federal tax cuts, saying they would benefit Colorado. He said we need to have manageable growth and tied it with transportation infrastructure improvements.

Polis began his response by saying Stapleton was falsely making him out to be a liberal tax and spend strawman. He touted our parks and open spaces, saying they are important job drivers in our state for companies that are seeking quality of life for their employees. He vowed to protect these areas.

Rural Colorado

When Sealover asked the candidates about their vision to ensure that rural Colorado shares in the state’s prosperity, Polis pointed out that there are many families in urban areas who struggle financially, too.

Polis said he wanted to explore new markets for farmers and ranchers. He said the next governor must be willing to stand up to presidents who are not willing to protect public lands. He called for broadband internet, saying it can assist telecommuting and medical care.

He said tourism and recreation could empower local communities to attract workers, touting Trinidad as a model.

Stapleton said a governor should help identify communities in rural parts of the state where companies may want to expand or relocate. He said lower costs of living and an available workforce could be attractive to companies priced out of expensive metro areas.

The forum covered lots of ground. It was just the first of several debates that Polis and Stapleton will attend in the month of October, ahead of Election Day on November 6.

9NEWS and the Coloradoan newspaper will host a debate in Ft. Collins on Oct. 17.