PROVO — Few differences emerged Tuesday in the first debate among the three Republicans facing a primary election next month in the race to fill the 3rd Congressional District seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz.
The Republicans — Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge, Provo Mayor John Curtis and former state lawmaker Chris Herrod — were joined on stage at the Covey Center for the Arts by Libertarian Joe Buchman and Independent American Jason Christensen.
Buchman and Christensen are both already on the November special election ballot. So is Democrat Kathie Allen, who also does not have a primary, but she chose not to participate in Tuesday's forum.
Everyone at the debate offered a similar response to questions focused on the role of the federal government in everything from health care to taxes to education — the less Washington, D.C., is involved, the better.
Although the debate format set by sponsor Americans for Prosperity-Utah allowed candidates an opportunity for brief rebuttals, no one asked to respond to statements made by their opponents.
While the tone the candidates took toward each other was civil, their contempt of the government often came through clearly.
"Nothing," was the role Curtis saw for the federal government in education.
Herrod said the "battle of ideas" is being lost, citing the support among many BYU students for Sen. Bernie Sanders' run for president as a Democratic socialist as "absolutely a problem."
Ainge answered that there are better ways to improve people's lives, calling on Congress to "preserve religious liberties and our values because that’s what makes the biggest difference in our lives."
Curtis, who led Herrod and Ainge in a poll released Monday, told reporters he expects other issues to surface in the campaign that will better differentiate the candidates but wasn't ready to say what those were.
"My goal is just to show that I've got the experience to do this and a conservative track record as mayor of Provo," something he repeatedly emphasized during the more than hour-long debate.
Nobody, Curtis said in response to a question about what the federal government's purpose actually is, "knows better than a mayor about what it's like to have big, bad government come and tell you what to do and how to run your life."
Herrod urged voters to compare the records of the candidates in his closing statement. He brought up his time in the Utah House and his efforts to fight for states rights as a member of the Patrick Henry caucus.
He also referred to his experience teaching in the former Soviet Union, where he met his wife, and made a point of letting the audience know he has been endorsed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the winner of Utah's GOP presidential caucus vote last year.
"That's one of my frustrations that we all kind of, this time of year, we all say that we're conservative. So there needs to be a little more differentiation," he told reporters afterward.
Ainge, who provided some of the most detailed responses, often citing current legislation pending in Congress on tax reform and other issues, said he wanted to focus on solutions.
"I feel really good. I feel like for those that are looking for a principled conservative who will get things done, I am their only choice," Ainge said. He said he "could not be happier" that no one talked about basketball.
Much of what voters have heard about Ainge is that his father, former BYU basketball start Danny Ainge, is the general manager of the Boston Celtics, the team that signed Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz.
But he said it "was a little bit frustrating" to be on stage with third-party candidates because he is trying to distinguish himself from the other candidates in the Aug. 15 GOP primary, Herrod and Curtis.
Buchman and Christensen earned applause from the more than 500 people filling the auditorium for their stands against Washington, particularly Buchman, who repeatedly said simply the government needs to get out of the way.
Voters in the predominantly Republican 3rd District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties, still haven't made up their minds, according to the UtahPolicy.com poll.
The poll by Dan Jones & Associates found that 49 percent of Republicans in the district are still undecided, while 29 percent favor Curtis; 12 percent, Herrod; and 10 percent, Ainge.
Chaffetz stepped down June 30 to become a Fox News contributor. The special election for the remainder of his term through 2018 was set to coincide with this year's municipal elections.