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GOP gubernatorial debate in Birmingham brings three candidates to the stage

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Reckon by AL.com hosted the first of two political debates for the upcoming primary election Wednesday. The candidates were asked tough questions on a variety of topics that affect the state.

The historic Lyric Theatre was the scene for the showdown between Tommy Battle (R), Scott Dawson (R), and Bill Hightower (R).

"On this stage today, I am the only candidate who has a record. A record of building roads, improving education, and recruiting good paying jobs," said Battle in his opening remarks.

"I love our state, we must do better, we've lost faith in our leaders in Montgomery," said Scott Dawson (R).

Bill Hightower (R) said, "My plan is very simple. That is, we can do better. it's called Alabama First."

Noticeably absent was Kay Ivey (R), the current governor who is running against these men. She did not appear. Her staff cited scheduling conflicts. The governor had events listed on her public schedule that brought her to Spanish Fort and Mobile during the time of the debate.

Even though she wasn't there, Ivey still came up quite a bit. Rather than take jabs at one another, the three candidates seemed to turn to her instead. Each voiced frustration post-debate about her absence.

"It wasn't a deterrent," said Hightower in response to our question about whether her absence made it hard to focus on the other issues. "My fear is that we may elect a nominee who has not been properly vetted."

"I think it's an obstacle because we're all running for governor," noted Dawson.

Tommy Battle said, "It gave a topic for conversation. But it did keep us from being able to talk about real issues and her positions on those issues."

The candidates each expressed that the questions asked during this debate were tough, but necessary. They faced a series of questions about issues from the age of consent, to adoption, to economic development ant taxes. Roy Moore, a controversial figure in Alabama, came up as a topic of conversation too. For more on the debate questions from the AL.com and WBMA panel, click here.

The live audience provided a unique flavor for the debate. The audience members we spoke to said they came eager to hear from the candidates.

"I thought all the candidates answered the questions wonderfully well-- disappointed that Kay Ivey's not here," said Marci Bradford.

"I came in looking for the right man for the job, and I think I did [find him]," said Jay Johnson.

Now the debate is over, the candidates will go back to the communities around the state to continue campaigning. Some, like Hightower, speculate they may be gunning for a runoff in the upcoming election.

"I think there is going to be one. I'm not so sure that the Kay Ivey camp thinks there's going to be one. But I think there is," he said. "Their overconfidence could be their downfall."

Following the AL.com debate, staff offered some perspective on who may have won.