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Michael Conroy, Associated Press
Republican gubernatorial candidate Republican Mike Pence speaks during a debate with Libertarian Rupert Boneham and Democrat John Gregg in Zionsville, Ind., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.

ZIONSVILLE, Ind. — Republican Mike Pence defended his attendance record in Congress during the first gubernatorial debate Wednesday night and went on the attack against John Gregg for deficits the state ran up when the Democrat was speaker of the Indiana House.

Responding to Gregg's attacks that Pence has missed more than 80 percent of votes while a congressman, Pence said he had a 95 percent attendance record.

And in a rare acknowledgement of the other two candidates in the race, Pence the state ran deficits in the tens of millions of dollars during five of the six years that Gregg was speaker.

Touting himself as the best candidate to continue the fiscal prudence of his fellow republican, Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pence said Indiana residents should be proud of Daniels' "honestly balanced budgets."

Gregg, though, used the reference to Daniels to highlight differences between the current governor and Pence.

"Mitch Daniels shows up to work every day," Gregg said.

Gregg said he would work with Republicans and Democrats alike as governor and criticized Pence's conservative ideology, saying it has devastated northwestern Indiana's steel industry and would have cost Indiana auto industry jobs too. He labeled Pence as the "lead attack dog" on Democrats.

In response to a question about the federal health care law, Gregg and Libertarian candidate Rupert Boneham said the state should plan for changes that are certain to come, but Pence maintained "Obamacare" must be repealed and a hybrid insurance exchange that Boneham and Gregg have called for would be deeply flawed because "the federal government partners with states like an alligator partners with a duck."

Indiana's next governor will inherit a full plate, beginning with work on the state's next biennial budget. Daniels is leaving his successor with an estimated $2 billion in cash reserves and a pending drop-off in transportation funds of roughly $500 million a year.

The new governor also will have to negotiate with veteran lawmakers during the 2013 session, including Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who said last week that new tax cuts sound good on the campaign trail but might have to wait as the state phases out the inheritance tax and decreases its corporate income tax.

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The 2013 legislative session also promises to force a few divisive social issues before the new governor, including efforts to teach creationism in Indiana schools and a proposal to write Indiana's ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. Boneham is the only one of the three candidates to say he would oppose the ban.

Democrats and Republicans got a head start on the debate by scrapping over fiscal responsibility. Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb repeated claims Wednesday that Gregg left Indiana in shambles after leaving the Statehouse as House speaker in 2002. Gregg spokesman Daniel Altman countered that Pence voted for Republican budgets in Congress over the last decade that squandered a former budget surplus.