- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - In their first head-to-head debate Tuesday, West Virginia’s Democratic and Republican nominees for governor clashed over which businessman is better suited to rebuild the struggling coal-dependent state’s economy.

Offering few specifics, billionaire businessman Jim Justice touted himself Tuesday as a political outsider with outside-the-box ideas to create jobs without big cuts or tax hikes. He said it’s possible to build the next Dollywood or Disney resort in the Mountain State and called for a general expansion of agriculture, with one specific reference to timber and furniture production. He wants a short-term financing bridge in the meantime.

“You will not be able to cut your way out of this mess,” Justice said. “You’ve got to some way grow your way out of this mess.”

Republican state Senate President Bill Cole, a car dealer, said cuts to regulation, legal reform and government downsizing are needed to create a better business climate.

“If we don’t set the stage that makes it good for our job creators, both the ones that are in West Virginia now and the ones we want to lure here, all this is just a bunch of talk,” Cole said.

The debate gave the two candidates their first face-to-face shot to trade jabs, repeating many of the criticisms already running on TV airwaves in a race that has cost the candidates and outside groups more than $8 million.

Cole blamed the state’s economic crisis on previous years of Democratic rule and criticized Justice for lacking plan specifics.

“The only plan I’ve heard so far is, ‘Trust me, I’m Jim Justice,” Cole said.

Justice labeled Cole a typical politician and criticized his two years as Senate president as ineffective.

Justice pointed to a special budget session that cost about $600,000 in taxpayer money before ending with a hike to tobacco taxes.

Cole pointed out that Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin controls the revenue projections, which fell several times because of the coal industry’s downturn and low natural gas prices. Tomblin also first vetoed a GOP budget that balanced almost solely on raiding the Rainy Day Fund and included no tax hikes.

In response, Justice lauded himself as a key addition that state Democrats didn’t have in years past. He’s been both a Democrat and a Republican.

“I cannot imagine looking at you two years into this and saying, ‘I’ve got to have more time,’” Justice said of Cole. “I’m too impatient. And to say ‘the Democrats were in charge before’ - well, the Democrats didn’t have Jim Justice.”

The debate delved into several other policy specifics - for example, Cole supports charter schools; Justice opposes them. Justice is supportive of state government taking a lead role in broadband expansion; Cole wants the private sector at the center of it. Both were open to legalizing medical marijuana.

In a state that could be one of Donald Trump’s most supportive, the Republican nominee for president didn’t come up in the conversation. Justice isn’t endorsing anyone in the presidential contest and has criticized Hillary Clinton, while Cole is aligning with Trump whenever possible.

The coal industry wasn’t discussed as much as it has in the race on TV, either.

Cole said natural gas and coal will remain important but the state needs to diversify. In TV ads, Cole and the Republican Governors Association have looked to lump Justice in with Clinton and President Barack Obama, both unpopular figures in West Virginia, particularly due to policies that address climate change by targeting power plants that burn coal.

Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate, briefly mentioned pushes to burn coal for power more cleanly.

“Everybody’s ready to throw the towel in on coal,” Justice said. “And I said, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Justice and Cole are vying to fill Tomblin’s seat. Tomblin is reaching his two-consecutive-term limit.

Third-party candidates Charlotte Pritt of the Mountain Party, Phil Hudok of the Constitution Party and Libertarian candidate David Moran were not invited to participate.

The only other scheduled debate will be Oct. 11 in Charleston.

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