Eric Greitens found himself fending off questions about a controversial donor at Thursday's Missouri Republican gubernatorial debate in Columbia, the first one this year to be televised.
Both Catherine Hanaway and Peter Kinder called on Greitens to return a $1 million campaign contribution from Michael Goguen. The California venture capitalist is being sued by a woman who accuses him of holding her as a sex slave for 13 years.
"This election is going to come down to who do you trust," Hanaway said. "It's time for Eric Greitens to send his contribution back, or better yet, send it to a shelter for abused women!"
Greitens responded, "Well, unlike career politicians, I'm not going to convict someone in the court of public opinion ... let's see how this civil case works itself out, so that we can make a decision based on the facts and the judgments."
He then launched an attack on Hanaway, accusing her of lying about her position on conceal-carry gun laws, which was legalized when she was speaker of the Missouri House.
"The fact is, she voted against conceal-carry in 2003," the former Navy SEAL said. "She was against conceal-carry in 2002, (and) she was against conceal-carry in 1999."
Hanaway, a former Missouri House Speaker, defended herself by saying she engineered the override of Gov. Bob Holden's veto that resulted in conceal-carry becoming law.
"Nice diversionary tactic, Eric!" she said. "But I don't want to walk away from this issue of an abused woman ... powerful men always try to suppress their (victims') voices, (and) you should allow this woman's voice to be heard!"
Kinder also piled on later:
"Eric, I don't think you're going to be able to maintain this with your million-dollar donor. I do not believe you're going to be able to maintain this. What the man has already admitted to has caused his former business associates to sever ties with him. (Presidential candidate) John Kasich did the honorable, stand-up thing of giving back the money within a few hours of hearing about it."
Greitens hit back hard: "You're the last person on this stage, sir, who should be trafficking in tabloid stories about men hanging out in strip clubs."
Kinder's visits to strip clubs when he was a senator in the 1990s, and his friendship with a former stripper, was used against him in 2011, which led him to drop out of the 2012 governor's race. He ran again for lieutenant governor, though, and won a third term.
Kinder brushed that barb aside by reminding the audience that Greitens was a Democrat "18 months ago," and that he's played no role in any battle for conservative causes in Missouri.
Greitens then brought out his military record: "I'm very proud of my service in southeast Asia, in the Horn of Africa, in Iraq, (and) in Afghanistan ...while you were playing politics as a career politician, I was out on the field of battle happily defending our constitution that I took an oath to defend!"
After the debate, Greitens was peppered again with questions, this time from the media, about the $1 million donation. Greitens refused to say if or when he might return the money.
"We're going to let the facts play out, guys. … I know that you're desperate for me to jump to judgment, (but) I will not jump to judgment," he told reporters. "I'm not going to convict anyone based on what happens in a media story, and I will not collapse in the face of the attacks from career politicians and their allies in the media."
St. Louis businessman John Brunner, who has had many scrapes with Greitens on the campaign trail, stayed out of this particular fight, which unfolded on the stage of the Missouri Theater. Brunner had, however, earlier issued a statement calling for Greitens to return the $1 million.
Candidates' stands on marijuana legalization
The four Republican contenders, for the most part, lined up with the same views on the issues. In answering a question about legalizing recreational marijuana use, all four opposed it, although most of them showed some interest in allowing it for medical use.
"The bigger issue dealing (with) marijuana (should be) for tax resources, revenues," Brunner said. "It's all about jobs. It's about getting this economy back on track."
Kinder said that he's on record supporting medical use of marijuana, but strongly opposes legalizing it for recreational use.
"The Democratic governor of Colorado, Mr. (John) Hickenlooper, has said that legalization step they took a few years ago was a mistake," he said.
Hanaway, a former prosecutor, opposes legalizing marijuana for both recreational and medical use, but said she's "open to seeing more science."
Greitens' answer got a few laughs: "There is no stoned path to prosperity, folks." He did express support for the use of CBD oil for children with epilepsy and similar diagnoses.
University of Missouri budget cuts
Questions remain as to whether Kinder, Hanaway, Brunner or Greitens would reverse funding cuts proposed by lawmakers this year for the University of Missouri System. Kinder said the real issue is a lack of leadership from the board of curators and Gov.Jay Nixon.
"I hear you, Missourians, across this state," Kinder said while looking directly into a TV camera. "What I'm hearing is you've had a bellyful of what has gone on on the campus of the University of Missouri here in Columbia. We have had a massive failure of leadership from the governor's mansion on down, and I hear you. We've had a governor who, just as in Ferguson, hid out in the mansion, instead of coming over here and exerting some kind of leadership."
Hanaway said she'd restore funding cuts, but only if university leaders are "responsive to the concerns of the people and the legislature."
Greitens said the next governor should plan a "fantastic university," then build the budget around it. Brunner said university funding should be the result of meeting "clear goals and objectives."
Thursday's debate was televised live by KOMU, which is owned and operated by the University of Missouri - Columbia. The TV station and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce are planning a second televised debate this fall featuring the Republican and Democratic nominees for governor.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport