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LARAMIE-Republican Matt Mead and Democrat Leslie Petersen took different sides on whether to legalize gay marriage in Wyoming during a gubernatorial debate Tuesday evening.

The two, as well as Libertarian candidate Mike Wheeler, also highlighted disagreements on the new federal health care law, among other issues, during the debate at the University of Wyoming's Union Ballroom.

Mead, a former U.S. attorney and rancher from Cheyenne, said marriage in Wyoming should be between a man and a woman. However, in the wake of several high-profile suicides by gay and lesbian students nationwide following taunting or pranks, he said Wyoming shouldn't allow gays and lesbian students to be bullied at school.

"I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman," Mead said, "but we want to be the Equality State, and we want to know that people in Wyoming are going to be treated fairly."

Petersen, on the other hand, said as governor she would "gladly sign" legislation to allow same-sex marriages in Wyoming. However, the former state Democratic Party chair quickly added that it would be unlikely that there would be enough support in the Legislature anytime soon to pass such a bill.

"I've been traveling in this state for four-and-a-half months, and I believe the people of Wyoming are not ready for any discussion of gay marriage," Petersen said.

Wheeler, a Casper businessman, said while he's a Christian, he opposes the part of the state constitution defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

"It also, in state law, says you can't ride a horse into a bar - it may be a little bit antiquated," Wheeler said. "We need to enter the 21st Century, folks."

Mead and Petersen also sparred over the federal health care reform law signed into law by President Obama last March.

Asked how he planned to reduce health insurance costs, Mead touted a pilot program passed by the Wyoming Legislature earlier this year that uses $750,000 from the state's tobacco settlement trust fund to establish personal health accounts for up to 500 participants.

"I think we've made some good starts," he said.

That approach, he said, is preferable to the "cookie-cutter approach" of the federal health care law passed earlier this year. Mead favors having Wyoming join a multi-state lawsuit challenging the new law.

Petersen, meanwhile, said Wyoming should continue Gov. Dave Freudenthal's tactic of taking advantage of the grants offered under the health care law, imperfect as it may be.

Petersen said while she supports the state's health care pilot project, it's not an insurance project.

"All it is is a benefit package, really," she said. "And we may learn some things about containing health care costs with that health care project, but it certainly is never going to take the place of Medicaid."

Wheeler said the new health care law only expands government bureaucracy while doing nothing to reduce health care costs.

Wheeler said, among other things, the federal government should implement a means test to reduce Medicaid benefits for the wealthy.

A former Teton County commissioner, Petersen said she has "more experience in actually governing" than either of her two opponents.

"I expect to run a very fiscally conservative and responsible government in monetary affairs in the future," she said.

Mead said as U.S. attorney, he oversaw the annual budgets for three statewide offices - and often returned money back at the end of the year. He also pointed to his experience running a farming/ranching business with his wife.

"That ...current private-sector experience, I think, is critical for the role of the next governor," he said.

Wheeler said his goal is to reduce the state budget by half.

"I know that there's a lot of ways, I know that there's a lot of bureaucracy, and I know that I can find the bottom and make a difference," he said.

However, the candidates also found common ground on a variety of issues, from the need to foster clean energy in Wyoming to support for cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants in the state.

All three candidates said they support the death penalty, though they all also said they wouldn't rule out pardoning a death row inmate if they thought it appropriate.

And while Mead and Petersen have differing views on the causes of global warming - Petersen said it's man-made, while Mead said he's "skeptical" of that - both agreed that Wyoming must work to develop clean energy technologies as demand for green energy increases.

The debate was sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming.

Two more gubernatorial debates are scheduled before Election Day: Oct. 21 at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington and Oct. 25 at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

Outside the debate room, volunteers campaigned for Taylor Haynes, a UW trustee who's running a write-in campaign for governor. Haynes wasn't invited to Tuesday's debate because he didn't submit enough petition signatures by last month's deadline to qualify for the November ballot.

 

Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com.

 

Correction:

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Matt Mead hasn't yet committed to having Wyoming join a multi-state lawsuit against the federal health care law. Mead has said that he favors joining the lawsuit.

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