A Benton County group will host a debate tonight for three of the seven Republican candidates running for congress in Iowa’s third district. Organizer Bill Keller says a forum with seven candidates would have been too crowded.

“It just didn’t fit,” Keller says. So the group invited the three candidates who have raised the most money. That means former I.S.U. wrestling coach Jim Gibbons, state Senator Brad Zaun and retired pilot Dave Funk will be on the panel tonight.

Retired architect Mark Rees objects. He’s also running in the district and has plowed over $50,000 dollars of his own money to his campaign. “Because my campaign has primarily been self-funded to date, my focus has been, you know, on other issues,” Rees says. The latest disclosure statements show Rees raised about $12,000 in the first three months of this year. Rees argues he’s being penalized because he isn’t spending a lot of time raising money.

“I have all the necessary elements, and then some, of a legitimate campaign,” Rees says. “I’ve got a campaign staff of three paid campaign staffers. I’ve driven thousands of miles in the district. I’ve knocked on thousands of doors.” Benton County Advocates, the group that organized tonight’s forum, would have invited a four candidate to the forum if one of the others — including Rees — had raised at least half as much as Funk, the third-place fundraiser in the race.

Rees fell far short of that threshold. Lynn Campbell of IowaPolitics.com recently hosted a broadcast forum featuring all seven candidates and, in a bid for brevity, she asked the candidates to raise their hands if they favored repeal of the new health care reform law.

“Every candidate raised their hand except Dave Funk who, you know, publicly issued a criticism that he’s not in the second grade and that it’s not becoming of a congressional candidate to raise your hand,” she says. Each candidate was given a minute to explain their stand on the health care repeal issue.

Tonight’s forum begins at 7 o’clock at the Community Bank Building in Vinton.