A political scandal that dogged Gov. Ernie Fletcher through most of his first term followed him onto a television stage during the first debate among Republican gubernatorial candidates.

"Our party deserves better," said Anne Northup, a former GOP congresswoman who is challenging Fletcher in the May 22 primary. "It's unfair that our party has gone through this for the past two years."

The governor was indicted last year on charges that he illegally rewarded political supporters with protected state jobs. The indictment was dismissed in a deal with prosecutors, but a special grand jury later issued its findings in the case, saying Fletcher had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws.

Fletcher said the investigation and indictment were the results of "politics of destruction" ahead of the November election.

"I don't think there's any doubt that investigation was politically motivated," he said during Monday's debate.

Seven Democrats, including two former lieutenant governors and the current speaker of the House, are seeking their party's nomination to run for the top job in Kentucky, one of three states that will elect a governor this year.

Harper and Northup separated themselves from Fletcher by calling for the repeal of the state's "alternative minimum tax" on small businesses. That tax, part of a Fletcher plan to modernize the state tax system, has been unpopular among small-business owners.

Fletcher and Harper said they would be open to considering tolls on two proposed Ohio River bridges at Louisville to help cover the cost of construction, but Northup said she was opposed to a toll without first considering all funding options. All said they were willing to look at the possibility of privatizing the state lottery. And all three said they were open to changes in the state's educational testing system.

In Fletcher's first gubernatorial campaign in 2003, Harper served as campaign finance chairman, helping to collect the contributions that were instrumental in electing the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Northup, who began her political career in the state House, served 10 years in Congress, representing Kentucky's largest city. She held onto the seat against a series of challengers, gaining a reputation as a prolific campaign fundraiser and bare-knuckled political fighter. Her winning streak ended in November when she lost the seat to Democratic challenger John Yarmuth, a Louisville publisher.