SALT LAKE CITY — The three top candidates running for the vacant 3rd Congressional District seat largely stuck to the issues Tuesday in the race's first general election debate.
There were still sharp differences among Republican John Curtis, the mayor of Provo; Democrat Kathie Allen, a Cottonwood Heights physician; and new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett during the debate in the KSL Newsradio studios.
On gun control, Allen said any device that converts semiautomatic weapons into "mass killings machines" such as the "bump stock" modification used in the deadly Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas should be illegal.
Allen said she supports the Second Amendment, but as a doctor who has seen patients die from fatal gunshot wounds, "we really need to do things to prevent this kind of violence from occurring over and over again in our country."
Curtis said it's important "to walk a very, very fine line between politicizing the event" and using it "as momentum for meaningful dialog" about preventing future incidents, including the preparedness of law enforcement.
"We don't want to pass something just because it makes us feel good," he said, going only as far as saying there should be a "thoughtful discussion" about any device that would convert a legal weapon into an illegal one.
Bennett said Curtis didn't respond quickly enough after a gunman fired on a concert from a Las Vegas hotel, killing 58 and injuring nearly 500 people, and he labeled his call for a discussion on gun control "tepid" and lacking leadership.
Bennett joined Allen in backing a ban on bump stocks, saying it's "something that I think anybody in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre ought to be upfront talking about" because few people knew beforehand such modifications were possible.
Other questions raised during the hourlong debate moderated by Doug Wright that demonstrated the divide between the candidates included how they view President Donald Trump and what should be done about health care.
While both Allen and Bennett were critical of Trump's character, Curtis said it was easy for him to support the Trump agenda on tax reform, strengthening the economy and other issues while keeping the president's "distractions off to the side."
When it came to health care, Allen was the candidate furthest from her opponents.
She called the nation's for-profit health care system an "abomination" and touted her core campaign issue, support for universal health care, while Curtis and Bennett suggested various smaller changes.
After the debate, Allen said she felt she responded more directly than Curtis and Bennett on that and other questions.
"We need concrete suggestions from people who are running for public office," she said.
Curtis made a point of clarifying after the debate that he and Trump do not agree on everything. He said his style as mayor is "very different" from the president's.
"I'm a consensus builder," Curtis said.
Bennett, the son of late Utah GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, said afterward that he was able to "make the case why the two-party system is broken and why Utahns need another choice."
The next 3rd Congressional District debate is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Eastmont Middle School, 10100 S. 1300 East, Sandy. It's being sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Utah and the University of Utah's John R. Park Debate Society.
The public can request free tickets at CD3Debate.org for the debate, which will include the Libertarian candidate in the race, Joe Buchman, in addition to Curtis, Allen and Bennett.
The Utah Debate Commission is holding an hourlong televised debate among Curtis, Allen and Bennett starting at 6 p.m. Oct. 18 at the KBYU studios on the Brigham Young University campus.
There are eight candidates vying to fill the seat vacated June 30 by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Curtis, Allen and Bennett were the top candidates in a poll for the Utah Debate Commission, followed by Buchman and the rest of the field.
The special election for the remaining year of Chaffetz's term is Nov. 7. The 3rd District includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties.