BUFORD, Ga. - Candidates in Georgia's fiercely contested Republican Senate race sought votes in one of the most solidly Republican areas in the country on Saturday, just days ahead of a primary that could help determine congressional control.
Reps. Paul Broun and Jack Kingston along with Georgia's former Secretary of State Karen Handel worked the crowd at a barbecue and fundraiser hosted by Gov. Nathan Deal in northern Georgia. The GOP stronghold is key to winning Tuesday's primary.
Republicans need to gain just six seats to claim a majority in the Senate. They cannot afford to lose the Georgia seat, which opened when Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement. Other Republicans in the race are Rep. Phil Gingrey and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue.
"There are a lot of votes in north Georgia, and nobody running for Senate is from one of those districts," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, who attended Deal's annual "Grillin' with the Governor" event and will be up for re-election in two years. "It's open territory."
Nearly a quarter of all Republican voters in the 2012 primary live in the two north Georgia congressional districts, and the top three elected state officials - Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and state House speaker David Ralston - call the area home. It's a reliable base of fiscal and social conservatives and has become the state's political power center.
"There is an independence among those in north Georgia; we've always prided ourselves on that," Cagle said. "They judge the candidates, more so than just the party label. A candidate has to appeal to the individual voter."
That has made campaign events like meet-and-greets and candidate forums in the area even more critical for voters like Patricia Falk, president of a GOP group at her residential community in Hoschton. She has decided to support Handel, who was one of three candidates who spoke to her group.
"I feel as though that I have had more exposure to her, and I liked what I heard," Falk said.
Mary Jones, who runs a horse and dairy farm in Flowery Branch, said she has known Kingston for years.
"He's always been a supporter of the farm community," Jones said. "It's nice to have someone who knows about farming issues."
Later, the candidates met for their final debate before Tuesday's primary. Perdue, who has been leading in polls, sought to explain comments he made earlier this week about how cutting spending and increasing revenue are both needed to address the nation's fiscal problems. His chief rivals have used those comments to accuse him of supporting tax increases.
"Of all the deceitful and false accusations that have been coming my way, this is absolutely the most outrageous," Perdue said, adding he had signed a pledge not to increase taxes.
Kingston countered that Perdue had an opportunity when he made the remarks to explain his opposition to raising taxes and didn't. "You should say, 'I'm against taxes,'" Kingston told Perdue. "You can't have it both ways."
Perdue was also attacked by Kingston and Handel for not voting in previous Georgia primaries. In response, Perdue said he wasn't living in the state in 2008 and voted in the 2012 presidential primary. There were general state primaries in 2010 and 2012.
"I have voted in every primary," Handel said. "That is a very solid and relevant issue, whether you are committed to our party and to our principles."
On term limits, Gingrey, Handel, Kingston and Perdue said they support them, while Broun said no.
"The problem is not unlimited terms," said Broun, who repeatedly cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate.
The Republican candidates were asked whether they would support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has drawn a tea-party challenger in his own bid for re-election. Handel and Perdue said they would not, while the three congressmen would not commit either way. The debate was hosted by WSB-TV in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, did not attend a separate WSB-TV debate for the Democratic candidates in the Senate race. Nunn is likely to advance in her primary against three lesser-known candidates. Her campaign cited a scheduling conflict.