ROSWELL, Ga. (AP) — Georgia's GOP Senate scramble erupted Wednesday into an intense round of attacks over taxes, gay rights and who's a real Republican, all in the shadow of a key vote that could help determine congressional control.
The top dispute in the seven-candidate field centered on remarks by the perceived front-runner, former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, during an editorial board meeting with The Telegraph newspaper in Macon, Ga. During the meeting, Perdue was asked about the nation's debt and whether it would be best to curb the growth of spending or increase revenue.
Perdue interjected, saying "both," and the questioner added the latter would be "a euphemism for some kind of tax increase, of course." Perdue laughed and referenced his business experience.
"I was never able to turn around a company just by cutting spending," Perdue said, according to audio available on The Telegraph's website. "You had to figure a way to get revenue growing. And what I just said, there are five people in the U.S. Senate who understand what I just said. You know, revenue is not something they think about."
The GOP primary is among a dozen races watched nationally, as Republicans need to gain just six seats to claim a majority in the Senate and can't afford to lose the one in Georgia. Democrat Michelle Nunn is likely to advance in her runoff, and the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn has already proved herself a formidable fundraiser. The top two vote-getters in the Republican primary will head to a runoff if none receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
Perdue's remarks prompted an immediate wave of criticism from Perdue's GOP opponents against a candidate who has been leading in recent polls less than a week before the nationally watched Tuesday primary. All pounced on the opportunity to characterize David Perdue as a tax-raiser.
Rep. Paul Broun condemned Perdue's "arrogance" in thinking so many senators wouldn't understand what he was saying. Rep. Jack Kingston, who has led in fundraising and has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Perdue's tax increases would "only hurt our economy." But Karen Handel struck perhaps the harshest tone, saying Perdue's remarks "should raise a question in everyone's mind."
"Exactly who is this guy? He's not a conservative and I question whether he's even a Republican," she said.
Perdue's campaign called the attacks "deceitful" and said Perdue was talking about increasing revenues by cutting spending and promoting pro-growth policies.
"He never said the phrase 'tax increase,'" said campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey. "David believes that tax increases hinder economic growth and destroy jobs."
Each of the Republican candidates has campaigned on the promise of reducing the size and scope of government. They often criticize spending levels and rising debt, usually blaming both on the Obama administration. All have talked about eliminating redundancies in federal government but have acknowledged those cuts are not enough to eliminate a $17 trillion debt.
As House members, Kingston and Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta both voted for deficit-budgets under Republican President George W. Bush. Broun, meanwhile, has insisted that any budget fix protect Medicare and Social Security, which together account for about 40 percent of federal spending.
Among the increasing chorus of attack ads, was one launched by Gingrey, criticizing Handel for her vote as a Fulton County commissioner to use taxpayer money to fund a group serving gay and lesbian teens. Handel's campaign said each commissioner chose his or her grants and Handel voted against providing gay partner benefits.
"This is nothing but a last-minute smear from a last-place candidate," said Handel campaign manager Corry Bliss. "We take it as a compliment and that it indicates Karen is headed to a runoff on Tuesday."