FORT WAYNE | With a new poll showing his lead in the race for Indiana governor diminishing, Republican Mike Pence strayed from his well-rehearsed script Thursday and finally engaged Democrat John Gregg during their final debate.
Unfortunately for Pence, Gregg was more than ready to fight back.
The former Indiana House speaker sharply criticized Pence's plan to use state government to promote marriage. Gregg said in nearly two years on the campaign trail no single parent ever came up to him and said "find me a spouse."
"I'm running for governor, not the state's matchmaker," Gregg said. "This stuff about defining families is wrong."
The Democrat also blasted Pence, a six-term congressman, for opposing federal assistance to the struggling auto industry in 2009, but campaigning across Indiana this year in a Chevrolet truck manufactured in Fort Wayne.
He linked Pence with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who sued the federal government seeking to shut down Chrysler.
"The congressman uses that red pickup as a prop," Gregg said. "Congressman, that ain't a prop; that's 120,000 Hoosier jobs that the Pence/Mourdock ticket didn't lift one finger to help."
On Tuesday, Mourdock said during a U.S. Senate debate that he believes pregnancies caused by rape are "something that God intended." Pence said he disagreed with that statement.
Pence seemed to think he had a winning line in attacking Gregg for enacting unbalanced state budgets when Gregg led the Indiana House. Pence said soberly, "We've got to have honestly balanced budgets."
But Gregg fired right back, noting the budgets enacted between 1997-2002 were balanced as required by the Indiana Constitution and also were approved by the Republican-controlled Indiana Senate.
"I find it almost laughable that a United States congressman would lecture anyone about fiscal responsibility," Gregg said. "You don't know anything about passing a balanced budget."
The candidates, including Libertarian Rupert Boneham, overall faced tougher questions than in their first two debates.
On teaching creationism in schools: Boneham said creationism has no place in a science classroom; Pence said he'd let local school corporations decide; Gregg dodged the question by talking about his plan for prekindergarten classes.
On legalizing marijuana for medicinal use: Boneham said yes; Pence said no because marijuana is a "gateway" to other drugs; Gregg said he's undecided but would meet with supporters and study the issue.
All three candidates said they doubted any more of the local government reform plans detailed in the 2007 Kernan-Shepard Report would become law.
A poll of likely voters released Thursday, which was sponsored by the Gregg campaign and taken prior to Mourdock's divine rape comments, found Pence leading Gregg by just 6 percentage points after being up 18 points in the same poll in July.