Tom Horne and Mark Brnovich

Incumbent Attorney General Tom Horne, left, and Mark Brnovich, his Republican challenger, center, debate Monday night at KAET. ([Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Incumbent Attorney General Tom Horne lashed out Monday night at “liberal media” and “a small, self-selected group of people” for trying to derail his reelection bid.

In a televised debate sponsored by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, Horne brushed aside a series of questions about his legal problems, including everything from violating campaign finance laws to a hit-and-run accident. He said the only thing voters should be deciding in the upcoming Republican primary is who can get the job done.

Horne cited various court rulings that have gone the state's way since he first took office in 2011, including two Supreme Court cases he personally argued. He pointed out that Arizona got extra money in a nationwide settlement with major banks in a deal involving mortgage fraud.

But challenger Mark Brnovich said all that is irrelevant to his contention that Horne cannot do the job.

“Unfortunately, Tom has been distracted by his legal and ethical problems,” he said.

The debate was often contentious, with each one disputing any claim by the other. It even got to the point where they got into a spat over the extent of damage caused when Horne, driving someone else's car into a parking garage, struck another vehicle.

“You won't be truthful with yourself,” Brnovich said. “How can you be truthful with voters?”

“Your bellowing at me doesn't change the fact that we can't have an attorney general who can't control his temper,” Horne responded. And he said that his foe's campaign is based entirely on attacks.

“He has no achievements that he can point to or plans for the office he can point to,” Horne said, ticking off court victories. By contrast, he said Brnovich has little more than “empty words or empty promises.”

The attacks by Brnovich on Horne's problems even led host Ted Simons of KAET-TV at one point to ask the challenger whether he was actually running for attorney general or simply against Horne.

Brnovich responded by listing some of his endorsements, including Gov. Jan Brewer. He also cited his time as both a state and federal prosecutor as well as director of the Arizona Department of Gaming.

But Simons also did not let Horne off the hook about whether he can do the job. He pointed to Horne's various problems and questioned why Republican voters, looking for someone to face off in November against Democrat Felecia Rotellini, would want him as their candidate.

Horne's problems go back to the 2010 election, with charges that he illegally coordinated spending in that race with what was supposed to be an independent campaign committee. While an administrative law judge said there was insufficient evidence to prove coordination, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk concluded and is pursuing Horne to refund more than $400,000 she said was illegally collected.

More recently, Horne is accused by a former staffer of using state employees and resources to run his current campaign.

And then there's the fact the FBI had followed him in 2012, witnessing what Horne said was a minor hit-and-run accident. He pleaded no contest to the charge and fined $300 — $582 with surcharges.

Horne, however, brushed aside all of this as part of a campaign against him by people unhappy that, in winning the 2010 race, he took the office out of Democrat hands. And that resulted in all statewide offices being held by Republicans.

“And the liberal press couldn't stand that,” he said. “And they engaged in ceaseless attacks on me, big headlines.”

Brnovich said that's not an answer.

“We want an attorney general with integrity and character, someone that could do their best to serve all of Arizonans,” he said. “Unfortunately, Tom has been distracted by his legal and ethical problems.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether any of the allegations stick, with various court hearings scheduled for the next few months and beyond. But Brnovich said what happens there does not matter.

“The court of public opinion, the Republican primary voters on Aug. 26, will have the final say on this issue,” he said.

Brnovich also pointed out that at one time Horne was a registered Democrat, “working with liberals like Walter Mondale” while he was campaigning for Ronald Reagan. Horne responded that many people switched parties — including Reagan himself.

Horne pointed out that, for all the claims that he's unelectable, he has raised far more money than his foes. The most recent reports have Horne with contributions of $417,254, versus $127,961 for Brnovich, though $150,000 of Horne's money came from a relative.

But Brnovich dismissed that as irrelevant.

“At the end of the day, it's not how much money you spent, it's what you do with those resources,” he said, before going biblical. “All David needed was a rock to slay Goliath.”

Whoever survives the primary, however, could need a lot more: Rotellini already has raised more than $1 million.

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