HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte on Saturday touted his access to President Donald Trump, defended his accessibility to his Montana constituents and once again found himself answering questions about his assault on a reporter last year during a debate Saturday.

The first of two debates between the Montana Republican, Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams and Libertarian Elinor Swanson covered guns, health care, public land and federal spending, among other topics.

Gianforte returned several times to his main message that a vote for him was a vote for the president, as he sought to take partial credit for the nation's economy and portrayed himself as having influence with Trump.

"I have a seat at the table with the president, having been on Air Force One twice here in the last couple of months, been into the Oval Office and had the ability to bend his ear on issues that are important to Montana," Gianforte said.

Williams spent much of the debate chipping away at Gianforte, criticizing him for what she called broken promises to fix health care, provide better opportunities for Montanans, bringing civility to government and for not making himself more available to Montana voters.

She blasted him for introducing legislation to lift federal protections from several wilderness study areas without holding any public meetings on the idea. That prompted Gianforte to say he frequently appears on radio and holds monthly "tele-town hall" phone conferences with constituents.

"I've probably been more accessible than anybody that's filled this seat before," Gianforte said.

Williams also brought up Gianforte's attack against Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who said Gianforte body-slammed him for trying to ask a question the day before Gianforte won the seat in last year's special congressional election.

Williams, who had not made the attack a part of her campaign until now, accused Gianforte of lying about the attack and said that raises questions about his honor.

"Lying about it was, I think, something we also need to remember," Williams said. "We need to ensure that we have honorable, honest, statesmanlike people in Congress and we need to replace the one we have."

Gianforte and his campaign initially told police and the media that Jacobs was the aggressor, then Gianforte later admitted when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault that Jacobs was only doing his job. He said Saturday that he regrets what happened last year, takes full responsibility and "it's been fully covered."

Gianforte also declined to answer a question by one of the moderators on whether he agrees with the president's disdain of the media.

Swanson took shots at Williams and Gianforte, and said she was the only candidate who would not be influenced by a political party leader.

Gianforte, 57, is a technology entrepreneur who sold his software company to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion. He is running in his third statewide election in two years, starting with a failed campaign for governor against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock in 2016.

Gianforte won a special congressional election in 2017 to fill the vacancy that opened when former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke resigned to become Trump's Interior secretary.

Williams, 57, served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives from 2011-2015. Before she decided to challenge Gianforte, she was associated director of the Western Landowners Alliance.

Swanson, 36, is an attorney from Billings making her first run for political office.

The next House debate will be Oct. 6 in Bozeman.

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