By Kevin Landrigan

In their first televised debate, the four Republican candidates for governor erupted Wednesday night into charges and countercharges over local and state leadership to battle the opioid crisis.

State Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, went after Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, for claiming there has been a lack of political leadership in response to a record number of deaths from heroin and fentanyl overdoses.

"That is absolutely wrong," Forrester snapped at Sununu during the debate aired on WBIN-TV in Concord.

Forrester said as the chief Senate budget writer, she led the way to spend $101 million to fight the epidemic.

But Sununu insisted he was talking about city and town leaders.

"It is absolutely a mischaracterization. I said there needs to be stronger local leadership," Sununu said.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas protested that he's created an innovative program to give addicts quick treatment at all local fire houses.

"To say there is no local leadership, that is wrong," Gatsas declared.

Sununu refused to back down.

"There does need to be better local leadership in the city of Manchester," Sununu said. "I am not going to stop fighting on this issue. I am not going to apologize."

As Sununu was wrapping up his answer, Gatsas declared: "What have you (Sununu) done as councilor?"

Wilton Republican State Rep. Frank Edelblut, called for a less emotional debate.

"All of this squabbling about casting blame is not going to solve the problem. That is just politics," Edelblut said.

On June 7, the New Hampshire Union Leader quoted Sununu as saying, "No one has led at the state or local level. I will lead for my kids."

The four GOP rivals all accused Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan -- a U.S. Senate candidate -- of not doing enough.

"The governor has been an absolute disaster on the opioid crisis," Sununu said.

In another sharp exchange, Sununu was criticized for his support for Planned Parenthood contracts a year after he had opposed them.

"It really called into question a trust; you vote one way, you vote another way. The reason did not seem to be legitimate," Forrester said.

Sununu said there was no other provider to deliver critical, health care services for low-income women.

"The heart of this contract; it is about health care for women," Sununu said.

The candidates also fielded questions on Common Core in public schools, college tuition, commuter rail, Northern Pass and the economy.

Hassan's departure gives the GOP a solid chance of victory, but Democrats have won nine of the last 10 races for governor.

The three Democratic hopefuls are Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, former securities office director Mark Connolly of New Castle and ex-Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand.

The four Republicans square off again Tuesday night on WMUR at 7 p.m. to kick off a debate series co-sponsored with the New Hampshire Union Leader. The three Democrats debate the same night at 8 p.m.

Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, Second and First Congressional District seats also take part in WMUR-Union Leader debates next Wednesday through Friday night at 7.

(c)2016 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)