Passions flare as U.S. Senate hopefuls in both parties debate


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Near the end of a debate for Democrats seeking Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat on Sunday, nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn quipped: “I’m very popular tonight.” Later on when the Republicans got together, businessman David Perdue said: “I haven’t been this popular since 8th grade.”

Popular punching bags, that is.

As the May 20 primary election draws close, the polling front-runners in both parties got the brunt of rising intensity in Georgia Public Broadcasting debate formats designed for combat — with candidates allowed to question each other.

It was Nunn’s first and only appearance on stage with her three primary foes, and they came out gunning for the well-funded candidate, anointed by the Democratic establishment in Georgia and Washington as the party’s best hope in November. The debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club was taped Sunday and airs on Georgia Public Broadcasting Monday.

The daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn held her ground when asked if she really is a Democrat and why she hasn’t done more forums. Former state Sen. Steen Miles of Decatur delivered the sharpest barb: “I think that bucket of money gives you a certain arrogance that perhaps you don’t need to engage these voters,” she said.

Nunn pointed out that she has 25,000 donors and has done 200 events across the state. On her Democratic credentials, she said she’s “proud to have worked with President Obama.” But she thinks he could have done more to address the national debt and wishes he had included money for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in his most recent budget.

And, keeping one eye on November, she took a shot at Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston – the two best-funded Republicans in what Nunn called “a race to the extremes.”

“When you look at Congressman Kingston, for instance, who said that he was proud to have gotten support in (a recent spending) bill for the Savannah harbor, but then voted against it in the end,” Nunn said. “Or David Perdue, who said he was against and thinks that Obamacare is the ruination of the nation but was a few years ago for a federal healthcare solution.”

She tried to reiterate a cross-party appeal, explaining her support for the Keystone XL pipeline and for making revisions to the Affordable Care Act such as adding a cheaper tier of insurance coverage.

Branko Radulovacki said the Senate could use a psychiatrist like him and said his experience treating patients of all political persuasions will help.

“I’ve been going to tea party candidate forums and talking about Democratic values,” Radulovacki said, contrasting himself with Nunn.

Todd Robinson, a Columbus firefighter, distinguished himself from the field by saying he is in favor of civil unions but not same-sex marriage. Radulovacki and Miles favor same-sex marriage. Nunn personally is in favor of it but says states must decide for themselves how to address the legal question.

Robinson also said he’s best-qualified Democrat because he is the only military veteran.

Miles, who served one term in the state Senate, is the only Democrat in the race to have held elected office and she insisted a “political neophyte” won’t cut it.

The Republicans running for U.S. Senate debated for the second time in two days. Perdue was the prime target in the live televised debate.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel said that despite depicting himself as an outsider, Perdue got an “insider appointment” to the Georgia Ports Authority. Kingston hit Perdue for taking a payout from textile manufacturer Pillowtex as it went under and for not voting in most Republican primaries since he moved back to Georgia.

Perdue, for the first time in a string of debates, fired back just as hard. He challenged Handel for leasing a luxury vehicle on the taxpayer dime when she was Secretary of State. He knocked Kingston for supporting term limits when he first got to Congress – in the early 1990s.

“If you really believe in term limits, why are you still here?” Perdue asked Kingston.

Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta tangled with Kingston over an earmark Kingston sought for beach restoration on Tybee Island that Gingrey said would improve the value of Kingston’s own property there. Kingston said it was part of a program approved decades ago — well before he bought the property.

“Phil, I’m a little embarrassed for you for asking that question,” Kingston replied.