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Combative tones struck at GOP debate
2014-03-29 18.22.07
David Perdue, far right, answers a question during Saturday's debate. He is joined onstage by fellow Republican Senate hopefuls, left to right, Rep. Phil Gingrey, Rep. Jack Kingston, Art Gardner, Derrick Grayson, Karen Handel and Rep. Phil Broun. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

SAVANNAH — The seven Republican hopefuls vying for a chance to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss took a number of shots at the federal government — and each other — in Saturday night’s forum.

Congressman Jack Kingston, with somewhat of a home-court advantage in his adopted hometown, noted he has returned to the district every weekend he has been in Congress and that “no gate separates my house from your house.”

“If you want to come see me,” he said, “the door is open.”

Kingston and fellow U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, Atlanta network traffic engineer Derrick Grayson, Cobb County patent attorney Art Gardner, Sea Island businessman David Perdue and former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel are running for the GOP nomination to replace Saxby Chambliss. Chambliss, a Republican, is retiring after 20 years on Capitol Hill. Saturday’s debate was the fifth around the state for the Republican candidates, with two more scheduled before the May 20 primary.

Handel and Perdue charged that the current crop of congressmen didn’t push hard enough for the deepening of the Savannah port.

“No one would get 17 years to deliver this project to their boss in the private sector,” Handel said.

“We’ve been digging in that river since Oglethorpe,” Perdue said. “We’ve been fooling around, trying to get this port deepened for 17 years. It just shows you how out of control people are when they don’t have any urgency.”

Kingston fired back.

“Where were they when I brought down the chairman of the House Transportation Committee? Did they show up? I didn’t see them,” Kingston said. “Where were they when we pushed it through Appropriations? I didn’t see them then. Or when we met with the four agencies who have to sign off on this project? Can they even name the four agencies? Where were they when we were fighting the South Carolina lawsuit? Did they even know there was a South Carolina lawsuit?

“It is a Georgia gateway to the world,” Kingston said, “and we will make it happen.”

Gingrey, a Marietta physician and six-term Congressman, pledged to repeal Obamacare or go home.

“I will fight constantly to repeal probably the worst piece of legislation that has ever been passed in the history of the country,” he said. “It is destroying jobs, it is destroying the doctor-patient relationship and it is a life and death issue.”

Candidates were fairly unanimous in their view on proposed cuts in military spending. Broun, a Marine Corps reservist, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.

“We’re not taking care of our military,” he said. “We don’t have enough brigades in the Army. We don’t have enough wings in the Air Force. We don’t have enough ships in the Navy. And we sure don’t have enough Marines.”

Perdue said there are 54 bilateral treaties, including one to defend Taiwan from China.

“We’d have to borrow the money from China to fight China,” he said.

Grayson also said the country has done a poor job of taking care of its military once it returns home from overseas conflicts.

Perdue said he would bring a business background like no other candidate to the Senate. The cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, he has been CEO of Dollar General and Reebok.

“We have a full-blown financial crisis,” he said. “It’s real, it’s here right now and it’s deadly serious. Our crushing debt is our greatest threat to national security and it was created by career politicians. If they were in private business, they all would have been fired by now.”

Handel said she faced a $100 million deficit as chairman of the Fulton County commission, and the Democratic-controlled board wanted to increase property taxes.

“We cut that budget and we were able to have a budget without a tax increase,” she said. “I have a track record of putting conservative principles in action.”

In a striking departure from most of the other candidates, Gardner said the party could become marginalized if it doesn’t appeal to a broader voter base — including young people, gays, minorities and women.

“I have the courage to say that,” he said. “I believe in a big tent Republican party.”

Gardner, a patent attorney who lives in Cobb County, described himself as a budget hawk and also said he is fighting to stop pharmaceutical companies “from ripping us off.”

Kingston, first elected to Congress in 1992, said he was giving up a safe seat to run for the Senate.

“I believe the fight for America is in the United States Senate,” he said. “We neutralized Nancy Pelosi. As long as Barack Obama has Harry Reid standing between you and freedom, the battle is never going to be won. If we’re going to turn America around, we have to turn around the U.S. Senate.”

Gardner and Grayson sparred late in the forum. Gardner pointed out only he and Perdue were the only candidates who were not career politicians or convicted felons. Grayson said he was pardoned.

Gardner also took Gingrey, Kingston and Broun to task.

“The three Congressmen have had their chances,” he said.

Grayson said the three current Congressmen running for the seat have violated Constitutional principles.

“If you send me, all you’re going to get is 100 percent of the Constitution, 100 percent of the time,” he said. “If that’s too much, send me back home.”

Handel said she was the candidate best-equipped to take on Democratic front-runner Michelle Nunn in November. Handel gained the endorsement of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin last week, and Palin also endorsed Handel in her 2010 gubernatorial bid.

“I have a track record,” she said. “I have been under the intense scrutiny of the media and lived to tell about it.”

Kingston touted his conservative bona fides, noting his ratings as one of the most conservative members of his Congress. And he pointed out that President Obama won 55 percent of the vote in Chatham County in the 2012 election, but he received 53 percent of the votes cast.

“I have a 96 percent rating from the American Conservative Union,” he said. “The National Journal said I have the most conservative voting record of any of the candidates. I am a solid conservative and yet in the county in which Barack Obama got 55 percent of the vote, I got 53 percent of the vote. And I did it not by selling out but by engaging.”