- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) - Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman attacked Republican Gov. Mary Fallin for her handling of public education in Oklahoma as the two faced off in the first and only debate in the race to become the state’s governor.

A self-described underdog, Dorman tried to link the incumbent to fellow Republican state Superintendent Janet Barresi, who was soundly defeated in a GOP primary in June. He blasted Fallin’s support of a requirement that Oklahoma third graders pass reading tests before advancing to the fourth grade.

“We must have a champion for those students, a champion who will eliminate these ridiculous tests,” Dorman, 44, said during the hour-long debate at Oklahoma State University.

Fallin, 59, has never lost a political race in a career that has spanned more than two decades, including three terms as lieutenant governor and two terms in the U.S. House, and she’s a favorite to keep the seat in the GOP column. But despite having raised just one-sixth the amount of Fallin, Dorman believes he’s found a recipe to beat Fallin by linking here to Barresi and several GOP-led education initiatives that have not been well received by local teacher and administrators.

But Fallin didn’t shy away from her support for stricter education requirements, including an A-F grading system for Oklahoma schools and the third-grade reading requirements.

“There is nothing more important to Oklahoma’s future than creating a highly skilled workforce,” Fallin said. “You must also have high academic standards and accountability.”

Fallin touted Oklahoma’s growing economy since she was elected governor in 2010, including a drop in the state’s unemployment rate and growth in per-capita income. But Dorman said much of Oklahoma’s economic growth is attributable not to Fallin’s policies, but to the booming energy industry.

“The governor has been the beneficiary of a wonderful time in Oklahoma … but with every boom there is a bust,” Dorman said.

The debate, which included questions from OSU students and a panel of journalists, was broadcast live on public television and nationally on C-SPAN.

The two candidates also sparred on health care, with Fallin defending her decision not to accept a Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma under President Barack Obama’s health care law that would have provided health insurance to tens of thousands of working-class Oklahomans, saying it would eventually cost the state as much as $1 billion.

“My opponent wants to take more of Obamacare and put it in place in Oklahoma,” Fallin said.

But Dorman said Oklahoma should tap federal dollars available now so that money could be infused into the health care system and aid middle-class families.

The two did find common ground on agreeing that the Legislature should focus solely on the budget every other year, and deal with other policies the following year.

“There are a lot of people who are new to the Legislature. It’s complicated,” Fallin said. “I think that would help us all focus on the finances of our state.”

Keith Gaddie, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, described the debate as “tame.”

“(Dorman) poked and he tried to push … but there was no big knockout blow,” Gaddie said. “This didn’t move anyone. It’s Thursday night. People are watching football.”

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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