LAWTON, Okla. (AP) -- Democratic Gov. Brad Henry and Republican challenger Ernest Istook clashed over education, taxes and the state of Oklahoma's economy Tuesday in their first televised debate.
Henry promised to continue a bipartisan approach to solving problems if re-elected, saying that has led to record tax cuts and increased education improvements that are gaining national attention.
``It's what I call the Oklahoma way as opposed to the Washington way of partisan sniping and gridlock,'' Henry said.
Istook is leaving his 5th Congressional District seat after 14 years to run for governor. The general election is November 7.
Istook stressed ``growth with a purpose,'' saying the state needs to create high-paying jobs that will keep college graduates form leaving the state. He said lawsuit reform is vital to bringing more jobs to Oklahoma.
He also said the economy is not as strong as Henry claims and that the state is lagging behind the rest of the country in job growth.
``Imagine where we'd be if we didn't have an energy boom going on,'' Istook said.
The incumbent said education is the key to the state's future. ``I hope people recognize I've been the education governor,'' Henry said.
He mentioned the $3,000 teacher pay raise approved this year and his plan to raise teachers' salaries to the regional average.
``I fear what will happen to that program if I'm not here to make it happen,'' Henry said.
Istook replied that he was kind of ``the education father,'' having sent five children to public schools and having been in college at the same time.
Istook said he favored a merit-based teacher pay plan over the across-the-board approach approved this year. He said everyone wants teachers to be paid, but that parent involvement and leadership are important along with instilling values in children.
``It sounds to me that the congressman would have vetoed teacher pay raises,'' Henry said.
``Absolutely not,'' Istook snapped back.
Jan Stratton, anchor of KSWO-TV in Lawton, moderated the hour-long debate at Cameron University.
Istook criticized Henry for a 31 percent growth in government the last two years and for supporting a tax-cut program where an income tax cut was phased in.
Henry said the fact is he had supported and signed into law over the last two years the largest tax cuts in state history. He said eliminating the capital gains tax on Oklahoma property and the estate tax would benefit the state's economy in the future.
Istook said he would lower taxes further including eliminating the sales tax on groceries.
Asked about overcrowding in prisons, Henry said he would continue to ``not only be tough on crime but smart on crime.'' He mentioned the increase in drug courts as an alternative to prison but said the state faced some ``very difficult decisions on corrections.''
He stopped short of saying he favored building new prisons but said he would work hard for a ``consensus on this very difficult issue.''
Istook said one thing Oklahoma needs to do is trust juries and blasted Henry over paroling drug dealers. He said 1,500 drug dealers have been paroled during the governor's four years in office.
Henry replied that the congressman was distorting the record. He said the rate of paroles in Oklahoma is lower than the national average and other states in the region.
Turning to the immigration issue, Istook said Henry was not doing enough to help the federal government and referred to laws passed in Colorado and Georgia to curb benefits to illegal immigrants.
Henry replied that ``everybody knows this is a federal issue'' and accused Istook of trying to frame the debate to ``divert attention away from inaction by the federal government.''