LAKE BURTON, Ga. _ The Republican candidates for the US Senate participated in the first candidate forum up at Lake Burton on Saturday. Well, most of them, anyways. Reps. Jack Kingston and Paul Broun and former Secretary of State Karen Handel trucked up to northeast Georgia for the event, speaking to about 250 GOP activists. Rep. Phil Gingrey and businessman David Perdue were no-shows.
Here’s a few things we learned about each candidate from the debate, hosted by a group called Citizens Helping America Restore Government Ethics.
Paul Broun: In a crowded race, Broun is establishing himself as the bruiser. He strode the stage with no small amount of confidence – by the time he finishes his next book, he said, he’ll be a U.S. senator – as he sought to immediately distinguish himself.
“You’ll hear candidates say they’re conservatives, they want to stop spending. But folks, look at their records. I’m the only candidate who believes in the Constitution … I’m the only candidate in this race who’s been in the trenches trying to stop this out-of-control spending. And I’m the only candidate who’s willing to say no to leadership.”
He’s also trying to be the happy standard-bearer of Georgia's libertarian movement. He’s occasionally been one of only a few “no” votes in the House, he said. And frequently he's shared that stance with Ron Paul, the libertarian champion.
"The government is too big. It’s too intrusive. It’s taxing too much. And it’s sticking its nasty nose in your nose too much."
Karen Handel is an outsider, and she wants to make sure you know it. The former Georgia Secretary of State, who was a few thousand votes from becoming governor, declared “Washington is a mess” time and again during the hour long event.
“My opponents have served their districts and states well. But if you believe things are broken, you need to send different people to Washington. I am that individual. We must be bold and the time to act is now.”
Later on, she sought to hit that point home again by saying that Congress members have enjoyed too many trips overseas, too many visits to hair salons and too many shoe shines underwritten by taxpayers.
“My opponents in this race have served Congress a long time. Almost 40 years all together. Why should we expect anything different if we promote them?”
Jack Kingston doesn’t want to be hemmed in by geography. Kingston, who represents a coastal district centered on Savannah, knows his biggest challenge is tapping the vote-rich metro Atlanta market where Broun, Handel and Gingrey enjoy high name recognition.
At Saturday’s forum, he tried to show he's no parochial candidate. He reminded voters of his Athens roots, summers spent in the north Georgia mountains, his work on agricultural and military issues, and his support for the expansion of the Port of Savannah, one of metro Atlanta’s top wishes.
Kingston was also the only candidate at the forum to position himself as a Republican who can appeal to minorities and help the GOP ride the coming wave of demographic changes that could bring Democrats new voting strength.
“I’m down in the part of Georgia where there are real live Democrats,” he said of his district, where about a third of voters are minority.
“I’m getting very worried our party is getting smaller and smaller. What was our problem with McCain? He didn’t identify with the average person. What was our problem with Romney? He didn’t identify with the average person. We have to have people who’ve been in the real world.”
At the end of the forum, the three candidates gathered together and posed for an awkward hug as Republicans vowed to stand behind whoever the nominee is. But don’t let that fool you. This is going to be a rough race, and Saturday’s event was no exception.
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