Lewis and Zinke

John Lewis, left, and Ryan Zinke

BILLINGS – Ryan Zinke will participate in a U.S. House debate Monday with Democratic candidate John Lewis in Billings, his campaign said Friday.

The Zinke campaign made the last-minute announcement in a news release late Friday afternoon.

“Nothing is as important to me as getting my message out to the people of Montana,” Zinke said in the release. “I look forward to articulating the differences between myself and my opponent.“

For the past month, the campaign had said Zinke would not attend the prime-time debate.

The Republican candidate had initially suggested and tentatively agreed to the date and time provided by the Billings Gazette and other sponsors, then retracted his acceptance several hours later. His staff cited a scheduling conflict and requested the time be changed.

It would have been the first time in recent memory that candidates for U.S. House did not debate in the state’s largest city.

Instead, a forum with Lewis was to be held at the same time.

Zinke was scheduled to attend a series of discussions on Monday evening in advance of a campaign fundraising event in Texas on Tuesday with Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, campaign spokeswoman Shelby DeMars said.

“It took quite a while to rearrange everything,” DeMars said.

The Lewis campaign said the Democrat welcomes Zinke’s participation in the debate. The announcement will not change the candidate’s preparation, said Kathy Weber, communications director.

“John has been talking about a substantive policy agenda from the beginning,” Weber said. “Whether or not Zinke plans to show up is irrelevant.“

“It was only after weeks of public shaming that he finally decided to show up at something he should have welcomed in the first place,” she added.

Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick issued a statement welcoming the opportunity for voters to hear a Billings debate.

“This is excellent news. This means Montana voters will get to compare John Lewis and Ryan Zinke on issues, side-by-side, at the same time. We’re grateful that both campaigns have made this a priority, continuing the strong debate tradition Billings has played host to,” Ehrlick said.

The debate will take place at 7 p.m. Monday in the Petro Theater at Montana State University-Billings.

The event will be covered by the Billings Gazette and broadcast on public radio stations around the state.

Montana PBS canceled its broadcast coverage plans earlier this month after the Zinke campaign indicated he did not intend to participate.

Other congressional debates are scheduled in Bozeman, Great Falls and Kalispell.

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