Political Insider

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Few raised nails in Saturday's debate of GOP Senate candidates

GAINESVILLE -- The Chinese have a saying that underlines the value of conformity: “It is the raised nail that gets hammered.”

For the most part, this was the theme of Saturday night’s third U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Georgia GOP. All seven candidates attended and expressed near-identical positions on the minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act, and illegal immigration.

The best measure when it came to the pressure to conform: When asked whether Congress should intervene to kill Common Core, the new, multi-state set of education standards for public schools, businessman David Perdue noted that his parents were both school teachers.

“If my dad were alive, he’d say kill it tonight,” the former CEO of Dollar General said. Never mind that his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, helped start the Common Core movement and defends it even today.

Two candidates could count themselves as raised nails during the 90-minute program in a Brenau University theater. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston was the only one of seven candidates who supported the just-passed Farm Bill, which included its traditional mix of price supports and food stamp spending.

Kingston pointed out that agriculture remains the largest sector of the state’s economy, creates one of every seven jobs in the state. He also added this:

“For those who don’t like the EPA, there were all kinds of things in this farm bill that pushed back on EPA.”

Then there was Art Gardner, the Atlanta attorney who argues that the GOP emphasis on social conservatism is driving away the next generation of Republican voters. Said he, in his closing statement:

“The problem is that, when we run our candidates who are only hard-right social conservatives, it tends to drive away a lot of people in the middle. It tends to drive away minorities, women, and especially young people.”

Last week’s feud between Kingston and his congressional colleague Paul Broun came to the stage on Saturday night in a highly subdued form.

Kingston, when asked to say something nice about Broun, pointed out that both grew up in Athens, and went to the same schools and church. Their parents knew each other. “That’s it, Paul,” Kingston said.

For his part, Broun did not accuse his rivals of being John Boehner Republicans. Instead, Broun declared himself the only true protector of the U.S. Constitution and said this about his GOP rivals:

“The other candidates, however, appear to not understand the profound nature of this threat. They meekly accept government as it is….At best they seem to propose a less expensive, more efficient version of the status quo.”

Former secretary of state Karen Handel claimed the evening, by winning a straw poll that followed the forum. The results: Handel, 129; Kingston, 97; Broun, 76; Perdue, 47; Gardner, 28; Grayson, 24; and U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, 21.

On stage, Handel kept her shots at her three congressional rivals rather vague. Off stage was another matter. In the lobby of the theater, she set up a video display of this YouTube clip, accusing Broun, Kingston, and Gingrey of a history of inaction. She also replayed WSAV clips of the TV stations look into congressional travel by the trio. And during the debate, her campaign unloaded these Twitter messages:

Were there gaffes? A few. In his closing remarks, Kingston played up his ties to Gainesville and Hall County. “My campaign is practically being run by Hall County leadership,” Kingston said. “Every Monday, I am on the phone with Philip Wilheit, getting instructions and planning for the next week.”

Presumably, Kingston meant Philip Wilheit Jr., his finance chairman. Philip Wilheit Sr. is a close confidant of Gov. Nathan Deal and chairs the Board of Regents. The family are heavy GOP contributors.

And Perdue may have shown a bit of underlying temper when it came to a round of one-word answers to questions posed by moderator Tim Bryant of WGAU (1340AM). Though he was out of microphone range, several people in the front row heard him utter the phrase “male bovine manure.” Or its equivalent.

Broun, 61, a physician and naval reservist, pointed to his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan and declared himself “the only combat veteran up here.”

But Broun needn’t have exchanged gunfire with the Taliban to claim the title. The Department of Veteran Affairs gives this definition of a "combat veteran."

Veterans, including activated Reservists and members of the National Guard, are eligible if they served on active duty in a theater of combat operations after November 11, 1998, and have been discharged under other than dishonorable conditions.

The entire country of Afghanistan is considered a theater of operations.

While it can’t be considered a misstep, Derrick Grayson, the African-American pastor, showed a different side of himself. On theater seats was this invitation to an “after-after” party following the debate, featuring the candidate with his own band:

We may be mistaken, but Grayson appears to be playing bass.

But again, the most important and subtle differences among the candidates came in the field of foreign affairs:

Perdue and Handel emphasized domestic economics.

“We’re bankrupting ourselves with our foolishness,” Perdue said. He again pointed to the fact that we would have to finance any defense of Taiwan from attack by China – by borrowing money from China.

Handel adopted a similar theme: “If we are bankrupt, we won’t be in a position to protect our people, or protect our freedoms,” she said. Handel then focused on the increase in the federal debt that occurred on the watch of her three congressional rivals.

Gingrey backed down only slightly from his previous endorsement of a robust U.S. presence in the world:

“I’m all in favor of staying out of foreign entanglements unless absolutely necessary. But it is, occasionally, absolutely necessary. You think Israel. You think Ukraine, the bread-basket of Russia, and how important it is if they go West, not East.”

Kingston, who has built his campaign around a strong military, expanded on U.S. engagement abroad – in the areas of trade and public health:

“We need to be engaged in the world health picture, and here’s why: If you have a bird flu pandemic, it will come to America. We need to know what diseases are out there.”

But a strong isolationist presence was on the stage as well.

From Grayson: “We like to meddle in other peoples’ business. We’ve been doing it since Reagan. None of that has changed.”

From Gardner: “We do not need to go to war every time there’s a suggestion of going to war. They have a saying in baseball, that the best trades are the ones that you don’t make.”

And from Broun. He endorsed the need for a strong military, but also said this: “I believe very firmly, the United States should never, ever go to war unless Congress declares war.”

Broun also said the U.S. should continue its support for Israel – in part for geopolitical reaons, but also “because of a promise that God made Abraham….America must support Israel in order to continue to be blessed.”

One postscript: After the debate, we witnessed a pleasant, unorchestrated moment: Jack Kingston, escorting his elderly mom down a flight of stairs. It’s a Southern thing:

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.