BISMARCK - It's a "slap in the face to all voters in North Dakota" that Gov. Jack Dalrymple isn't participating in two debates sponsored by the North Dakota Tea Party, his challenger said Wednesday.

Paul Sorum of Fargo, who is competing against Dalrymple for the Republican endorsement for governor, said Dalrymple has missed opportunities to improve the standard of living of North Dakota residents and is now refusing to debate the issues.

"This is a slap in the face to all voters in North Dakota who deserve to hear his plans and hear him defend his record," Sorum said in a statement.

The North Dakota Tea Party has organized a Jan. 20 debate in Bismarck and a Feb. 25 debate in Fargo. All candidates in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races were invited to debate.

Sorum is the only gubernatorial candidate who accepted the invitation. Both Dalrymple and Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner, who is seeking the Democratic endorsement, declined.

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Dalrymple said seeking an endorsement for the Republican nomination is a process that takes place in front of groups of delegates at their local caucuses in their districts.

"Right now, what I'm seeking is an endorsement by a specific group of delegates, and I intend to go and speak to them directly," Dalrymple said.

If he does win the Republican endorsement for governor at the state Republican convention in late March, Dalrymple said debates with his Democratic challenger will "certainly" be part of the election process.

Taylor said it was "shocking" that Dalrymple didn't accept the Tea Party debate invitation. Taylor said he declined to participate because he looked at the debate sponsors - which include conservative radio personality Scott Hennen and - and saw the debates as Republican events.

"With Republicans having a contest for the nomination, I think it was really more appropriate for Dalrymple and Sorum to debate issues in front of that group," Taylor said.

In a news release, the North Dakota Tea Party said the debate format "is sincerely intended to be fair to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation."

Taylor said he plans to host listening sessions across the state during his campaign that anyone is welcome to attend to share their ideas on how to move North Dakota forward. He said he's glad to know Sorum and Dalrymple are willing to debate after the state party conventions.

"We're looking forward to debates after the convention that involve a broad section of North Dakotans," Taylor said.

The Tea Party caucus said all five Republicans in the House race have agreed to attend the debates. In the Senate race, Duane Sand has said he'll participate in both debates, but the other Republican candidate, Rep. Rick Berg, hasn't yet confirmed if he will take part.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.