MACON, Ga. - Three Georgia congressmen running for a promotion to the Senate found themselves on the defensive Saturday night, as their Republican rivals urged voters to hold all officials in Washington accountable for the nation's ills.
During a debate in Macon, former Secretary of State Karen Handel lambasted Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston for years of votes that she said added to the national debt. She referred to "accommodating Republicans," saying "we're going to hear lots of excuses. 'It's Obama's fault. It's Democrats' fault. I voted no.' Those are excuses."
David Perdue, the former Reebok and Dollar General CEO, didn't call the congressmen by name, but repeatedly hammered the national debt and a slow economy that he blamed on a dysfunctional government and everyone in it.
"If you want different results, you've got to send a different kind of person to Washington," said Perdue, a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Kingston, Broun and Gingrey all pushed back.
Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, detailed his work trimming federal spending. Gingrey loudly called attention to his support of a balanced budget constitutional amendment.
All three noted their votes against the debt deal that reopened government in October, though Handel mentioned some of their previous votes raising the debt.
The sparring comes in a primary race that is vital to Republicans' national effort to regain control of the Senate during the final two years of President Barack Obama's term. Republicans need a net gain of six seats for a majority, and that would become difficult if they lose the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
That concern was on display before the debate began, as top Georgia Republicans warned several hundred attendees that a splintered party after a bloody primary could lose to Democrats in the fall. The primary is May 20, with an almost certain runoff July 22. The nominee will likely face Democrat Michelle Nunn, whose father, Sam Nunn, once served in the Senate.
"We cannot continue to be 'one strike and you're out' people," moderator and radio host Martha Zoller, herself a failed congressional candidate, told several hundred central Georgia voters. "After the primary and runoff, our nominee is going to be bruised and battered and broke, and they will need you to get behind them."
State Party Chairman John Padgett and Rep. Austin Scott, who represents Macon in Congress, urged Republicans not to repeat the bitterness of the 2012 presidential primary process, when many conservatives were openly dissatisfied with nominee Mitt Romney.
"Barack Obama would not be the president today if every one of us would have gotten over not having the person we might have voted for in the primary," Scott said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Predictably, most of the candidates reserved their harshest words for Obama and Nunn. They were particularly critical of the administration not including money in its proposed 2015 federal budget for deepening the Port of Savannah after Vice President Joe Biden said last year that the project would happen "come hell or high water."
Biden was in Georgia last week to raise money for Nunn and other Senate Democratic candidates.