With inflation, abortion rights, and climate change on the menu, there's no shortage of things to debate in the final weeks of the campaign for Montana's new Congressional seat.
But the showdown also has a heaping helping of personality as the three candidates for the House District 1 seat gathered on Monday at the City Club before hundreds.
Judging by the turnout for Monday's debate, Montana voters haven't lost their interest in the state's most watched showdown between Libertarian John Lamb, Democrat Monica Tranel, and Republican Ryan Zinke.
"He's just about telling the facts and the truth and leaving it up to the people to decide what is true and what's not true," Zinke supporter Leslie Whitman told MTN News outside the debate. "I believe for a fact that he is an honest individual and he really wants what's best for Montana and he'll fight for that."
But Tranel supporter Kevin Shey was just as opposed to Zinke's return to Washington, noting his support of former President Donald Trump.
"Her opponent Ryan Zinke is sponsored by the man who orchestrated the first coup in American history. And we can't allow that. We can't allow that to represent Montana," Shey said pointedly. "A man who doesn't even live in Montana. We need a woman who's been here for a long time, fighting for everyday Montanans regardless of party affiliation."
The showdown hit all the expect notes of inflation, abortion and public lands. But got testy over law enforcement and guns.
"You can't have it both ways," Zinke told the capacity audience. "You've got to support our law enforcement and you've got to shut down the border."
Tranel demanded to make a response, overriding moderator Sally Mauk. "Let me be unequivocal and clear. I support funding for our law enforcement and our police. I have never said anything different. And for you to misrepresent me in front of this crowd does no service to democracy. Thank you."
Zinke responded, "Are you legal counsel for Montana 350?"
"Do you want to have a debate? Let's have a debate," Tranel demanded with determination as she confronted the former Interior Secretary. "I do represent 350 Montana and in that capacity I have reduced your energy costs that 350 has bravely and courageously fought for."
The pair weren't done with their confrontation, sparring over the Second Amendment a few minutes later.
Zinke asked "Monica, do you know what the Second Amendment states?"
"Do you?" Tranel shot back.
"Yes," Zinke responded.
"Say it," Tranel demanded.
"Shall not be infringed," Zinke stated to a combination of applause and heckling.
While Lamb stayed out of the verbal fisticuffs, he agrees the appearance was critical, especially to independent voters.
"Most people don't realize there's another party out there and they don't really get to know the other party," Lamb told me afterward. "So sometimes when they see the name "Libertarian," they think 'well, they're liberals.' Or they're this or that. They don't really know us. We aren't in a box. I'm a 'Ron Paul' Libertarian."
"Because the people deserve to hear from us," Tranel said before, commenting about the importance of debates. "They deserve to see us side by side and judge us for who we are and what we think. John Lamb has agreed to that and I want Ryan Zinke to agree to that too."
"There's a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt in the direction where the country is going. And in Montana it's our values," Zinke told reporters. "We're a little different up here. You know, the Second Amendment ranks a little higher than some states. Our lifestyle, our outdoor experience is important. And we're going to have to defend it."
On the subject of abortion, Zinke took the "conditional" approach, while Libertarian John Lamb pointed to his own large family and beliefs, clearly stating his opposition to the procedure. That left Tranel alone to expand the issue beyond abortion to other points on women's healthcare and families.
Zinke said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have any unwanted pregnancies? Wouldn't it be nice if there wasn't incest, rape? Issues of health [for] the mother of the child? Wouldn't it be nice? But it's not true. So I think a ban is too harsh. But I can tell you open-ended -- as my opponent and as the Democratic party would suggest and support — I'm sorry, I do not agree with termination moments before birth. And privacy has limits."
Tranel countered, "Oh, murdering somebody moments before birth? That is just absolutely crazy. Would you put a woman in jail for having a miscarriage? That's where you are, and that's not right. So let's talk about what we actually need to be doing for our communities. Let's support young families. And women have the right to participate in the world on our own terms. This decision is the first time in our history your freedoms have been taken away."
Lamb said, "For the federal government, I don't believe the federal government should be involved in our life. I'm for more of a state and local government, not a federal government. But I would definitely vote against abortion."
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