PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Fresh off landing big, 11th-hour endorsements, Rhode Island's two Republican governor hopefuls bickered in another televised debate, with one of the candidates saying voters have been ill-served by a campaign filled with "venom."
Small businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung met in an hour-long forum at the Providence Performing Arts Center. It was sponsored by WPRI-TV and The Providence Journal.
The candidates fielded questions on illegal immigration, abortion, education policy and taxes. At one point, they were asked what they thought about an unofficial rule in the Republican Party, attributed to Ronald Reagan, against speaking ill of other GOP political candidates. The candidates — despite broad agreement on many issues — have sparred for months, making the race feel, at times, bitter and personal.
Block paused before answering. "I hate this campaign," he said. "This campaign has been full of venom, vile and half-truths."
He said the race has not helped inform voters and blamed the negativity on Fung, but also said he couldn't let it go unanswered.
Fung called the race "spirited" and said he thought it had featured some good debate on important issues.
Fung has called himself the only real Republican in the race, criticizing Block's past votes for President Barack Obama and his candidacy for governor four years ago as the candidate of the Moderate Party. Fung also ran an early TV spot that depicted Block's supporters as cartoon-like "Blockheads."
Block, meanwhile, has tried to paint Fung as a political insider. He previously accused the mayor of holding "corrupt" contract negotiations after taking campaign donations from police union members.
The primary is Sept. 9. The Democratic side features a heated race among Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and newcomer Clay Pell.
Both Republican candidates announced big endorsements earlier in the day. Block won the backing of John Robitaille, who finished second in the gubernatorial race four years ago. Fung was endorsed by Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and a former governor of Massachusetts.
Fung — and many others — have accused Block of costing Republicans the 2010 gubernatorial election by siphoning votes from Robitaille, and the mayor stood behind that charge Tuesday night. Then-independent Lincoln Chafee won 36 percent of the vote to Robitaille's nearly 34 percent. Democrat Frank Caprio got 23 percent, while Block got 6.5 percent.
In endorsing Block at a Statehouse news conference hours beforehand, Robitaille said he didn't hold Block responsible for the 2010 loss, attributing it instead to entering the race late and not having enough money.
He said Block had shown leadership and a willingness to work hard, and he praised Block's successful efforts to push for legislation to eliminate the straight-ticket voting option on Rhode Island ballots. He said he may disagree with Block on some social issues, but both are fiscal conservatives.
In a back-and-forth at the debate on the endorsements, Block said he wasn't surprised that Fung got Romney's support. Block said when he was considering hiring the campaign consultant that Fung ultimately brought on, the firm had offered to bring in Romney's endorsement for Block.
Fung said the consultant never promised him the endorsement and that he earned it.
In a message to voters, Romney touted Fung for leading financial reforms and creating jobs in Cranston. He called Fung a proven leader and said he will do for Rhode Island what he did for his own city.
Associated Press writer Jennifer McDermott contributed to this article.