Republican Eric Holcomb and Democrat John Gregg are going into the last two weeks of their contentious campaign for the Indiana governor's office by facing each other in a final televised debate Tuesday evening.
Holcomb has been working to introduce himself to Indiana voters since becoming the Republican nominee in July after Gov. Mike Pence dropped his re-election bid to become Donald Trump's running mate. Holcomb rarely mentions Pence's name while campaigning, but says he'll focus on what he calls the state's progress under the past 12 years of Republican governors.
Recent polls have shown Gregg slightly ahead of Holcomb as he's tried to label Holcomb as a rubber stamp who supported Pence on matters such as Indiana's religious freedom law, which sparked a national uproar from opponents who maintained it sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Libertarian candidate Rex Bell will join them for the hourlong debate beginning at 7 p.m. at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. The not-for-profit Indiana Debate Commission says it will be broadcast by several television and radio stations around the state.
Among the sharpest policy differences between Gregg and Holcomb are their stances on whether to extend state civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and how fast to expand state-funded preschool programs.
Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker, maintains the state needs greater gay-rights protections to improve its national reputation and help businesses recruit top employees to Indiana.
"We have to be a welcoming state," Gregg said in a recent speech. "We've got to keep away from the social issues. We've got to focus on keeping talent and attracting talent here."
Holcomb, who was picked by Pence to become lieutenant governor in March, says few people have raised the topic with him around the state and that the Republican-dominated General Assembly is unlikely to find a compromise after an attempt failed during this year's legislative session.
"I tend to spend very little time where I view zero percent probability making progress," Holcomb said.
Holcomb and Gregg both say they want to expand the state's current pre-K program, which was launched across five counties in 2015 and has since sent about 2,300 low-income children to preschool at annual cost of about $10 million.
Gregg has proposed making the preschool program available for all of Indiana's 80,000 or so 4-year-olds, phasing in the program over three to four years with an initial cost of $150 million from existing state funds.
Holcomb calls for a slower approach, focused on opening the program to low-income families. He said the universal program being back by Gregg could cost the state $500 million a year.
Big money has been pouring into the race from out of state as the Indiana race is regarded as one of the most competitive of the dozen governor's offices up for grabs in the Nov. 8 elections.
Holcomb has received $5 million from the Republican Governors Association—a sum that represents a majority of his campaign funding.
Gregg, who lost the 2012 governor's race to Pence, has collected $1.3 million from the Democratic Governors Association and more than $2 million from labor unions to support his campaign.
A poll conducted for WISH-TV and Ball State University that was released last week showed Gregg with 48 percent support and Holcomb at 43 percent among likely voters. The poll's margin of error was 4.8 percent.