ATLANTA - Two longshot candidates in the Republican primary for Georgia governor disagreed Saturday on whether to participate in a national health insurance overhaul and whether to expand the places people can carry firearms.
Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state Schools Superintendent John Barge met in the debate hosted by WSB-TV ahead of Tuesday's GOP primary. Both men are seeking to replace incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal as their party's nominee.
The winner will face Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, in the general election.
A nuanced difference emerged when both candidates were asked whether they would back a Democratic plan to expand the Medicaid system in Georgia so more low-income residents could have health insurance. Barge said he agreed with Deal's decision not to accept an expansion - though Barge also said the state has an obligation to care for the poor and hinted that a compromise with federal officials may be possible.
"If you can find ways to do what meets your needs and your state the way you need to do it, and it still meets what they've requested, they will work with you," Barge said. "And so I think there can be a better partnership there."
Pennington said a Medicaid expansion would not solve the state's health care access issues.
"What we need to do is get Georgia back to where we were 15 years ago, which is the most powerful, successful economy in the South with good jobs with health care benefits," he said.
Pennington said he supported recent legislation from the GOP-dominated General Assembly that would let people take firearms into bars if they have a license to carry a weapon. He also wanted to allow those with licenses to take their weapons onto college campuses, a proposal that did not become law.
"The bad guys are going to have guns, I assure you of that," Pennington said. "Don't take my freedoms away."
Barge said he has a license to carry a weapon, but he had concerns about letting people have guns in bars.
"I don't think that alcohol and guns mix," he said.
Notably absent was Gov. Nathan Deal, who spent part of the day hosting a campaign fundraiser called "Grilling With The Governor" at Lake Lanier. He has raised far more campaign money than his rivals.
"A debate isn't necessary for Georgians to learn where he stands," Deal spokeswoman Jennifer Talaber said in a written statement. "That being said, Gov. Deal is unable to participate in the debate on Saturday as he has a longstanding prior commitment."