ATLANTA (AP) - The top two Republicans running for governor in Georgia launched the first of three debates Sunday by bickering over who was responsible for 2020 and 2021 Republican election losses, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue pressing his attack that incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp is to blame for Democratic control in Washington, while Kemp fired back that Perdue was trying to pass the blame for his own loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Perdue continued to showcase support for debunked claims that Democrats fraudulently won the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia.
"The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen," Perdue said during a debate sponsored by Atlanta's WSB-TV. "All the madness we see today ... all that started right here in Georgia when our governor caved and allowed out radical Democrats to steal our elections."
Kemp said he followed the law, that Perdue was lying to voters about his claim that Kemp permitted a settlement agreement over how signatures on absentee ballots were verified, and that the secretary of state and State Election Board have primary responsibility for investigating election wrongdoing.
"I was Secretary of State for eight years," Kemp said, "and I don't need to be lectured by someone that lost their last election about what our voting laws are and who has responsibilities for those in our state."
Kemp was not a party to the settlement agreement, but Perdue claims Kemp should have called a special session and asked lawmakers to reverse it. He also says Kemp should have done more to investigate fraud claims, saying Kemp is the "top cop" in Georgia.
Kemp was required by state law to certify the results and has repeatedly said any other course would have invited endless litigation. Federal and state election officials and Donald Trump's own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
"You have a candidate that is going to attack my record, unfortunately, all night tonight, because they didn't have a record there to beat Jon Ossoff in 2020," Kemp said.
The debates come as voting nears in for the May 24 primary. Counties can begin mailing absentee ballots Monday and early in-person voting begins May 2. Kemp and Perdue are scheduled to meet Thursday in Savannah and May 1 in Atlanta.
Besides Kemp and Perdue, the primary includes Republicans Catherine Davis, Kandiss Taylor and Tom Williams, who were excluded from Sunday's debate. A runoff would be held June 21 if needed.
Kemp, facing a Republican primary electorate that polls show widely believes that Trump did not lose fairly, didn't say he thought the 2020 and 2021 elections were fair, and didn't say he thought there was no fraud.
"Look, I was as frustrated as anybody else," Kemp said. "That's why we passed the strongest election integrity act in the country, because a lot of things were done by other people."
Perdue is endorsed by Trump, who has been focused on defeating Kemp. But Kemp has maintained a lead in fundraising and in the polls as he seeks a second term. That dynamic played out in the debate, with Perdue attacking and Kemp by turns defensive and dismissive.
The incumbent sought to highlight his record, including raising teacher and state employee pay, cutting taxes and quickly lifting restrictions after Georgia's brief COVID-19 lockdown. Kemp said that's a better way to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams than endless litigation of past elections.
"That is a record that will beat Stacey Abrams in November, not looking in the rearview mirror," Kemp said.
Perdue, though, argues only he can win votes from Trump diehards to beat Abrams.
"He has divided us," Perdue said of Kemp. "He will not be able to beat Stacey Abrams. And if we want to protect our freedom and our values, we have to vote and we have to make sure that Stacey is never our governor."
Kemp repeatedly deflected when asked if he supports the affluent, mostly white Buckhead neighborhood seceding from the poorer, Blacker city of Atlanta. That effort died in the state legislature this year amid opposition from business groups, some Republican lawmakers and Atlanta city leaders. Kemp said instead he was focused on reducing crime in Atlanta.
"I think the debate needs to continue," Kemp said "I'm going to continue to keep my powder dry. Let this movement come forward or not. That's a decision that the legislature is going to make."
Perdue said that was an example of Kemp being a "weak" governor, supporting Buckhead's exit from Atlanta.
"They're trying to protect themselves," Perdue said of his support for letting Buckhead split off. "And the only way to do that is to get control of their own government. Keep your powder dry? People are getting killed up there right now."
Perdue also rapped Kemp for not doing more to arrest people in the country illegally, noting a 2018 ad where Kemp pledged to round up "criminal illegals" and transport them in his "big truck," if needed.
"What happened, governor? Pickup break down?" Perdue asked.
Kemp defended his record, noting he has stationed Georgia National Guard members near the Mexican border. But he said said adding to the jail population would have been a bad idea at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don't know how going around picking up people that might have COVID when our law enforcement was sending ventilators and PPE supplies to hospitals would have been a good strategy," Kemp said.