A rowdy crowd greets combative candidates for first governor’s debate

Caption
Senate and gubernatorial candidate supporters get loud during the debates in Perry.

The too-close-to-call contest between Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Democrat Jason Carter is shaping up to be a referendum on the incumbent’s handling of education and the economy.

Both candidates offered clear contrasts on those pivotal issues at a raucous first debate before thousands of cheering voters in middle Georgia.

The two rivals traded barbs and insults throughout the hourlong event at a cavernous convention hall at the Georgia National Fair. Deal depicted Carter as an inexperienced and unaccomplished two-term state senator with little more than “high-sounding phrases and cliches” at his disposal. Carter painted Deal as a vision-less leader who has allowed Georgia to fall behind rival states.

The debate took place before throngs of rowdy, sign-waving supporters. They applauded their candidate and booed his rivals. The crowd noise was a major factor throughout the debate, as candidates were often interrupted with cheers and jeers. At one point, the debate moderator complained he couldn’t hear.

It offered Carter and Deal a tantalizing chance to rally their bases four weeks before the November 4 vote. It also gave Libertarian Andrew Hunt, who is hoping to play spoiler in the race, a chance to seize the spotlight. He promised to fight for fewer regulations and more personal liberties.

“A vote for Hunt is not a wasted vote,” said Hunt.

‘Young and inexperienced’

Parts of the heated rhetoric hinged on the federal report released last month that showed Georgia’s jobless rate had ticked up to 8.1 percent — the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Carter said the hike was a sign that the governor was ignoring the middle class.

“How long,” Carter asked Deal, “do they have to wait in your economy to get the benefits that you’re talking about?”

Deal, who has pointed to increases in Georgia’s labor force as a sign of economic optimism, said his economic record should be measured since he took office in January 2011. As he often does on the campaign trail, he pointed to media rankings that put Georgia as the number one place in the nation to do business.

“Sen. Carter, I know that you’re young and inexperienced,” said Deal. “But obviously you are trying to hold me accountable for the Great Recession.”

Carter said state needs a chief executive who has a solid plan to bolster the middle class.

“You’re blaming other people for what we have to do,” said Carter. “We need a real leader who says the buck stops here. Period. We’re not going to blame the Great Recession for what’s happening in our state.”

Hunt, meanwhile, said both candidates needed to overhaul the state’s tax policy and offer more incentives for employers to hire high-wage workers.

“Deal wants to continue with the same economic plan that has gotten us to the highest unemployment in the nation,” said the Libertarian, adding: “We need to change things. We have to make it better for the people … and we can do it with better jobs and better education.”

‘We’ve got to do better’

The candidates also bickered on Deal’s education funding policy, which has long been a top target of Carter’s campaign. The Democrat vows to significantly boost education funding and claims Deal has done too little to support schools, while the governor points to Carter’s three previous votes in favor of his spending plans.

Carter told the audience it was a tour of rural schools last year that helped convince him to vote against the budget this year, a vote that took place months after he announced his candidacy.

“When you get outside of Atlanta, when you go and sit in the cafeteria in Randolph County, you talk to enough teachers, I could not stand by any more and continue to vote for budgets that underfund education by billions of dollars year after year after year,” said Carter. He added: “We’ve got to do better and investing in our people is the only way.”

The governor scoffed at Carter’s trip as an “epiphany tour” and noted that other Democrats who were on the task force that toured state schools also voted for the budget, which increased K-12 funding by more than $300 million.

“I don’t know what changed his mind,” Deal said, adding: “Ironically those other Democrats that went with him didn’t have that same eye-opening experience. They came back and voted for the budget.”

The candidates also clashed over the ethics complaints that have dogged Deal’s term. The state has been forced to spend about $3 million to settle whistleblower lawsuits claiming his office improperly interfered with the agency’s inquest into his 2010 campaign.

Carter said “a little bit of what we did this week as taxpayers is going to pay for the coverup.” Deal answered that he’s proposed sweeping changes to overhaul the “dysfunctional” watchdog agency.

“We did not interfere,” Deal said. “If we did, we would have been indicted by somebody.”

The debate, though, inevitably wound back to the economy. In his closing message, Carter said Georgia had all the pieces to be an economic powerhouse. It just lacked a sage guide, he said.

“What we have to do is unleash the potential of our people, unleash the power of our small businesses, and stand strong against the special interests in Atlanta,” said Carter. “Right now the middle class has been forgotten.”

Deal, in his closing remarks, said Carter has an undistinguished record and has done nothing of substance in the state Legislature. Deal stressed a stay-the-course message in the final four weeks of the campaign.

“If you think these last four years have been good - and I believe they have been - just wait. We’re going to do even more.”

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