- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - After this week, when gubernatorial candidate James Comer had to defend himself against allegations that he abused a former girlfriend in college, things seemingly couldn’t get uglier in this bitterly contentious Republican primary.

Enter Christian Laettner.

The star of the early 1990s Duke basketball teams is a four-letter word in Kentucky after a thrilling East regional final game in the 1992 NCAA Tournament when Laettner stomped on a University of Kentucky player before hitting a buzzer-beating shot to break the hearts of Kentucky fans everywhere.

So when questioning candidate Hal Heiner during a debate Wednesday on “Kentucky Sports Radio” - the most popular sports talk show in the state - Comer was sure to speak in a language Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation would understand.

“You are the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics,” Comer said.

It was one of several jabs leveled at Heiner from both Comer and candidate Matt Bevin, an indicator that both candidates see him as their biggest threat for the Republican nomination less than two weeks from the May 19 primary.

Comer’s campaign seemed to skid to a halt Tuesday after Marilyn Thomas, a former girlfriend, wrote a letter to The Courier-Journal accusing him of hitting her and said he had driven her to an abortion clinic.

But Comer strongly denied the allegations during a lengthy news conference, and Wednesday he attempted to turn the attention back to Heiner, pointing to emails in the Lexington Herald-Leader that showed Heiner’s running mate and her husband had been in contact with a blogger that had been trumpeting the allegations on social media.

“This issue has been swirling around forever,” Heiner said. “I’m not responsible for any blogger or what any other individual does in this state. When I heard what happened … I addressed it.”

The sniping between Comer and Heiner could provide an opening for Bevin, the Louisville businessman who angered many Republicans last year for his unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary.

Bevin seemed to defend Comer against the abuse allegations, saying there are not enough facts to proclaim guilt. But he attacked Heiner, pointing out that he voted to ban concealed weapons in city buildings while a member of the Louisville Metro Council - a vote many conservative Republicans would oppose.

“I’ve received highest rating from the NRA. I’m a life member. I’m a hunter. Quite frankly, the meat our family eats is deer meat. I’ve harvested it on our farm,” Heiner said. “There will be no infringements on gun rights in Kentucky.”

Host Matt Jones got the candidates talking about issues they rarely get asked in Republican circles, showcasing some rare disagreements among the field. Three of the candidates - Heiner, Bevin and Will T. Scott - support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Comer does not, arguing the same medical benefits can come from hemp, marijuana’s less potent cousin. And though Comer, Heiner and Bevin said they support drug-testing public and private school students and welfare recipients, Scott - a former Kentucky Supreme Court justice - argued that would be unconstitutional.

When it comes to Republican politics, Bevin, Comer and Scott said they identify more with the policies of U.S. Sen Rand Paul than McConnell. Heiner refused to answer the question, saying he supports both of them, despite repeated efforts by Jones to get him to pick one.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” Jones said to Heiner.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Bevin quipped.

But perhaps the most dangerous question for the candidates on this show was to pick who they would rather have as a basketball coach: Louisville’s Rick Pitino or Kentucky’s John Calapari. Comer and Scott both chose Calapari. Bevin and Heiner, who both live in Louisville, chose Pitino.

“Pitino is a better coach. Calipari is better recruiter,” Bevin said.

An exasperated Jones couldn’t believe it.

“You do know which show you are on,” he said.

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