Democrat Chet Culver and Republican Jim Nussle met tonight in their first face-to-face forum of the gubernatorial campaign.

Each accused the other of being unsuitable to become governor. Nussle, the Republican, accused his Democratic rival of making big-spending promises that would cost taxpayers millions. “Hold onto your wallets because it’s comin’ from you,” Nussle said. In return, Culver pointed to the federal budget surplus that turned into a budget deficit during Nussle’s six years as chairman of the U.S. House Budget Commitee. “You might be able to do that in Washington, D.C., but you cannot do that in Iowa,” Culver said.

Culver then challenged Nussle, as a Republican member of congress, to comment on the scandal involving a GOP congressman from Florida who allegedly sent sexually explicit email to a teenager who worked as a page in the U.S. House. “We’re glad that he resigned and we’re going to make sure that he is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Nussle said.

The two candidates sparred over a proposal to forbid bullying of gay or lesbian schoolkids. Nussle said students are bullied for a variety of reasons and there’s no reason to “carve out” a special exception for a “sexual persuasion.”

“You can’t tell me that the only children that are bullied in Iowa are children that for some reason you know to be gay or lesbian,” Nussle said. “Kids that are being abused or attacked…on our playgrounds and our schools and our communities are all shapes and sizes. They’re all colors and creeds. They have all sorts of challenges and disabilities…We need to protect all kids.”

Culver said he’d have a zero tolerance policy for schoolhouse bullying of gay and lesbian kids. “I was a teacher and a coach…I didn’t tolerate any bullying in my classroom then and I won’t tolerate it as governor,” Culver said. “I will work in a bipartisan way…with the Republican leaders and the Democratic leaders in the legislature to move forward on implementation of this anti-bullying legislation and it’s unfortunate that Congressman Nussle won’t join me on that effort.”

Nussle was first of the two candidates to speak and he used his first moments behind the microphone to ask for a moment of silence. “Two more Iowa soldiers were killed in Iraq in the service of our country, protecting our freedom. We get to have this debate tonight in freedom, in celebration of those things that sometimes unite us and sometimes divide us,” Nussle said.

The first question was about the campaign advertising Iowans are seeing and hearing. “Congressman Nussle was the first candidate to go up on the air statewide with negative radio attacks and…negative television attacks,” Culver said. In response, Nussle said it was “laughable” for Culver to suggest he hadn’t run negative attack ads himself. “Just watch your television tonight and you’ll see quite a few of them,” Nussle said.

The second question asked the candidates to outline their stand on the abortion issue. Culver, the first to respond, said he would not alter current Iowa law. “As governor of this state, I will protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” Culver said. “Congressman Nussle has a very extreme position. He would outlaw abortion even in the case of rape and incest, even in the case of life of the mother and the health of the mother.”

Nussle responded: “First of all, I do not have an extreme position unless you believe it’s extreme to protect innocent life. I really believe that the life of the unborn is worth protecting…The Supreme Court may very well throw this back into the laps of Iowans to decide and if that’s the case, I’ll be a governor that promotes and ensures that we protect innocent life.”

Tonight’s debate was sponsored by KCRG TV and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.