Gov. Christine Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi hammered each other tonight over the budget, the economy, health care and education in a crisp, fast-paced debate before a packed and partisan crowd at Yakima's Capitol Theatre.

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Gov. Christine Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi hammered each other Wednesday in a crisp, fast-paced debate before a packed and partisan crowd in Yakima.

It was the third of five scheduled gubernatorial debates between the first-term Democratic incumbent and the former state senator, her opponent for the second time in four years.

While largely civil, the candidates never looked each other in the eye, and there were no conversational moments when they interacted on the issues.

Each accused the other of being beholden to powerful special interests.

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According to Gregoire, Rossi’s allegiance is to the Building Industry Association of Washington, a conservative group that has consistently accused Seattle-area Democrats of stealing the 2004 election.

Gregoire answers to labor unions, according to Rossi, especially the state-employee unions negotiating a pay increase with her administration.

Gregoire became angry when Rossi casually tied the early release of 31,000 felons during her administration to the murder of a police officer.

“Anybody who thinks I let felons out of prison early — and they killed a police officer — it’s an outright lie,” Gregoire said.

Rossi called Gregoire fiscally irresponsible, saying she “recklessly gambled the economic boom would never taper off.” He likened her spending to that of former Gov. Mike Lowry, a Democrat known for big ideas and big social programs.

“She’s outspent Mike Lowry. You’d have to lay awake nights figuring out how to outspend Mike Lowry,” Rossi quipped.

But Gregoire said the state has caught the same cold that’s spread across the nation, which has legislators staring at a projected $3.2 billion budget for the upcoming biennium.

“Our nation is truly facing unprecedented economic challenge,” she said. “No corner of America has escaped the mess created by Wall Street.”

Gregoire defended her administration’s expansion of children’s health care and attacked the Republican position that the state requires too much coverage.

“Do you want to get rid of mammograms? Do you get rid of prostate screenings? Deregulation didn’t work on Wall Street, and deregulation of health care in the state of Washington would be a disaster,” she said.

Rossi countered that health-care consumers should have market choices.

“We need to have options. We have the worst options in terms of health care this side of the Mississippi. You have a bureaucrat in Olympia deciding for you,” he said.

In closing, Rossi claimed he’s getting more and more support from frustrated Democrats. “This is a citizen-level movement,” he said. “We want to work with anybody who wants to work in good faith and turn this state around. We can change the culture of this state for our children and grandchildren.”

Gregoire closed the debate talking about education.

“My opponent comes up with catchy slogans,” she said. “He’s pretty good at that. But, tonight’s the night we talk seriously with each other. America is in trouble. My opponent would have you believe the problem is that I spent money on education and crime. … Let’s get the facts straight. We have to make sure we have someone with the leadership to see us through these tough times.”

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