By BILL BARROWB
ATLANTA — Georgia's Republican U.S. Senate candidates take similar if not the same positions on most of the matters that tie Congress in knots.
But six of the GOP hopefuls used a forum today sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association to insist that their differences matter, even if it's not obvious when they talk about President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Democratic Senate's immigration bill or most anything to do with regulations and the federal budget.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, mindful of the audience full of municipal leaders from around the state, emphasized her time on the Fulton County Commission. She said he helped cut spending and worked with local leaders who successfully pushed to create new municipalities in the county.
Eugene Yu pointed to his business success after emigrating from Korea and insisted, repeatedly, that he is "one of a kind" with a "common-sense approach" now in short supply on Capitol Hill.
David Perdue, the former top executive of Dollar General and Reebok, noted that he's never run for office before, unlike Handel and three U.S. House members seeking the Senate seat. All other issues, Perdue said, pale in comparison to a $17 trillion national debt. "Our career politicians have caused it and can't be trusted to fix it," he said.
Yet those congressmen — Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston — all argued that their records in Washington prove they'd be a reliable conservative and productive member in the Senate.
Broun, a favorite of tea party activists, insisted that he's the most consistent conservative of the total eight Republican candidates. He spoke of federal government "tyranny" and argued that "the mayors and the county commissioners and the state officials should have more power than we have in Washington."
Gingrey repeated his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act during his first term or "go home," though he also recalled serving previously in the Georgia General Assembly when Democrats still ran state government. "I can work with anybody," he said.
Kingston said he's backed up his philosophy on frugal government by cutting his office budget and trimming certain programs as a member of the House budget committee.
The Republicans will meet in a May 20 primary, with an expected runoff scheduled for July 22. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, and Atlanta psychiatrist Branko Radulovacki, whose family emigrated from Yugoslavia when he was a child, are the expected Democratic candidates. Nunn is the heavy favorite and has national party backing, but she didn't attend the Monday forum, instead leaving Radulovacki to speak alone after the Republican's hour-long affair.
The eventual winner will succeed Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring. Holding the spot is key for Republicans as they try to pick up six seats to regain Senate control.
As the Q&A exposed some distinctions among the GOP field, it also highlighted the tightrope candidates walk as they try to yield no ground on their conservative credentials.
Yu stood out on immigration saying "amnesty ... is insulting to someone like me who came here legally." But he said the U.S. government should make it easier to immigrate legally.
Perdue said he opposes the Senate immigration law. But he broke from the chorus of opponents to frame the entire question as a "Washington distraction" that takes attention away from the more pressing matter of a structural budget deficit and rising national debt.
Broun, after multiple claims of being the most conservative, recalled voting for a House measure that would have barred federal law enforcement from prosecuting doctors who prescribe marijuana for medical treatment.
Perdue and Kingston broke with Broun and said Congress should require online retailers to collect sales taxes, though Kingston took pains to say it should be a part of a comprehensive tax overhaul. Broun said that levies on Internet sales amount to a tax increase.
Gingrey and Handel expressed sympathy for the pending proposals, heavily backed by retailers with store fronts, but they stopped short of explicit support.
Broun, who repeatedly railed against "out-of-control government spending," highlighted his work to secure federal money for an Athens health center and other projects he said were worthy.
Railing on the national debt, Handel said, "I don't think we can afford to have anything be a sacred cow." But she went on to state her general support for "priorities" that include "community development" grants to local governments.
On the same topic, Gingrey assured the audience, "I know how important they are to you, and I will continue to work very hard to make sure that this cow is just as sacred as any other."