Highlights from the Republican governor debate

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MILWAUKEE Wis. (CBS 58) -- For the first time, the three Republican candidates seeking to unseat Democratic Governor Tony Evers this fall shared the debate stage Sunday, July 24 in Milwaukee.

Former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, construction executive Tim Michels and State Rep. Tim Ramthun participated in the televised debate co-hosted by Marquette University at WTMJ-4 news.

It marked Michels' first time on a debate stage in nearly two decades after losing to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold during 2004 U.S. Senate race.

It didn't take long for Kleefisch to take a swipe at Michels, who are both in a close race, after he decided to not attend a debate last month in Green Bay.

"Tim, thanks for showing up tonight," Kleefisch said about Michels during her opening remarks.

Michels and Kleefisch are nearly tied in polling conducted by Marquette University Law School. Michels leads with 27%, Kleefisch at 26%, and Ramthun sits at 3%. The June poll also found 32% of voters surveyed are still undecided.

Here's are some key takeaways:

ABORTION:

All of the candidates vowed to uphold Wisconsin's 1849 abortion ban if elected. The issue is at the center of a legal challenge brought forth by the Evers administration days following the U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which protected abortion rights.

Kleefisch further explained her opposition to adding exceptions to the 1849 law, which only allows woman to get an abortion if her life is at risk. She believes the abortion ban does not apply to miscarriages and ectopic pregnancy treatments.

Adding exceptions for rape or incest are also opposed by Michels and Ramthun.

DECERTIFYING THE 2020 ELECTION:

Ramthun was the only candidate to call decertifying the 2020 election a priority, a move that legal and constitutional experts have said is not possible.

"I'm surprised I'm the only one," said Ramthun.

It was an issue Michels and Kleefisch pushed aside and instead stressed the importance of reforming election laws.

"It's not a priority," Michels said, who secured former President Donald Trump's endorsement. "My priorities are election integrity, crime re-education and education reform."

It was the first time Michels distanced himself from decertifying the 2020 election -- an effort Trump has continued pressured top Republicans to do. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently told Trump over the phone he would not overturn the election despite repeat requests by the former president on his social media platform.

Joe Biden's nearly 21,000 vote victory over Trump in Wisconsin has been upheld by the courts, recounts and nonpartisan election reviews.

Kleefisch reiterated she believes the 2020 election was "rigged" but added she doesn't want to decertify the results.

PAID FAMILY LEAVE, ALL SHOW SUPPORT:

All three Republicans showed support for reforming paid family leave in Wisconsin.

Michels said he would sign a bill to require employers to provide paid leave for women and men, a policy that Democrats and Republicans agree on.

"I will support health care and time off for mothers and fathers," Michels said. "We need to make sure everyone has an opportunity to find a job. That's how you get the greatest health care you possibly can."

Kleefisch said it’s a policy issue she would “absolutely review.

EDUCATION, DISSOLVING MPS:

Each candidate backed expanding universal school choice and eliminating critical race theory in schools all while bashing Milwaukee Public Schools when asked about education reform.

Michels called MPS a "complete disaster" but didn't commit to signing a Republican bill that would dissolve MPS and open smaller school districts.

Kleefisch touted if it was her idea to break up MPS and signed she would, if elected.

“There is no superintendent who can possibly know the names and families and be held accountable by 70,000 different kids,” said Kleefisch.

DACA - MICHELS FLOPS:

When asked three times by one of the TMJ moderators, Michels couldn't give a straight answer whether he supports giving incentives to DACA students, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- often called "dreamers."

The Obama-era program protects thousands of unauthorized immigrant children who came to the United States and allows them to remain in the county.

TMJ moderator Charles Benson asked, "Yes or no for DACA students as well - the incentives?"

Michels replied, "What kind of students?"

"DACA," moderator Shannon Sims clarified.

"DACA… DACA students?" said Michels. "I want to look at the details on everything before I agree to anything."

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