CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Ben Salango wants to debate.

The Democratic candidate for West Virginia governor on Friday said he has agreed to debate Gov. Jim Justice five times before the November election and called on the Republican incumbent to sign on as well.

Salango, an attorney and Kanawha County commissioner, said he wants to engage Justice on the governor's spending of federal coronavirus relief funds and what he described as an undercounting of virus cases, a lack of legislative oversight on the state's pandemic response and testing discrepancies at a nursing home where infections have risen sharply.

“Gov. Justice and I have a lot to discuss,” Salango told reporters, adding “and this needs to take place in a public forum where he cant hide from the public and dodge questions from the media.” The debates are being organized by media companies across the state.

Justice’s campaign said earlier this month that the governor agreed to a debate in October organized by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association. His campaign manager said Salango's call for more debates was a “political stunt."

“We were the first to accept the West Virginia Broadcasters Association debate, which will be broadcast statewide, and every West Virginian will have an opportunity to see the difference between Gov. Justice and Ben Salango,” Justice campaign manager Roman Stauffer said.

The governor declined to debate his GOP challengers before the Republican primary elections, calling it a “waste of time.”

The governor held daily news conferences during the opening months of the pandemic but has since pared down appearances to a few times per week. The briefings are closed to in-person attendance. Journalists can ask questions through a teleconference call but the governor’s office picks the questioners and does not allow follow-ups when answers are vague.

Salango narrowly defeated progressive community organizer Stephen Smith to win the Democratic nomination in the primary elections. Justice, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman, trounced Woody Thrasher, former state lawmaker Mike Folk and others to win the GOP nomination.

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