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Georgia GOP candidates for Senate work to stand out at debate

U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, center, speaks during a Georgia GOP debate of candidates for the U.S. Senate, as moderator Tim Bryant and candidates Art Gardner, Karen Handel and David Perdue look on. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, center, speaks during a Georgia GOP debate of candidates for the U.S. Senate, as moderator Tim Bryant and candidates Art Gardner, Karen Handel and David Perdue look on. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

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U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, second from right, participates in a debate Saturday among Republican candidates for Georgia’s open Senate seat. Candidates David Perdue, Derrick Grayson and Paul Broun also participated. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

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Businessman David Perdue, center, answers a question at Saturday’s Georgia GOP debate of U.S. Senate candidates. On the left is former Secretary of State Karen Handel and on the right is minister Derrick Grayson. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

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At Brenau University in Gainesville, Saturday, candidates for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat debated in a forum hosted by the Georgia Republican Party. In addition to moderator Tim Bryant, the field included (from fourth from left to right) Art Gardner, Phil Gingrey, Karen Handel, David Perdue, Derrick Grayson, Jack Kingston and Paul Broun. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

With 87 days left before Republicans choose from a spate of candidates hoping to replace Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate, a debate boiled down to a choice on style as much as substance.

“We’re all on the same page when it comes to conservative and, hopefully, constitutional principles,” said Derrick Grayson, a minister from Atlanta, who said the voters should not send “recycled politicians” back to Washington. “What is important is our Constitution, our liberties and our freedom.”

When the debate was broken down into yes and no answers, all of the candidates answered the same. But there were nuances along the way, with the GOP hoping to pick the right candidate to battle against Democrat Michelle Nunn in the fall and retain the Georgia seat for the party.

With three congressmen in the fray, several of the questions centered on recent votes, and progress on issues.

U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, of Athens, talked about his Patient Option Act proposal, which would replace the current health care law.

“This is the only bill that keeps a bureaucrat from getting between you and your doctor,” said Broun, who also said he wanted to get out of the United Nations and abolish the Department of Education. “Big government is crushing business. … It’s taking our personal freedom away, and that must stop.”

While all of the candidates said they support a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, of Marietta, pledged he would go home at the end of his first term if he isn’t successful in that endeavor.

“The most important thing in this election is to get rid of, repeal, Obamacare, and save America,” Gingrey said. “I’m making an accountability pledge to you.”

And U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, of Savannah, stood alone in supporting a recent farm bill, which he said made strides in cutting spending and cutting down EPA regulations. He said the most troublesome part of the bill — that it was wrapped together with SNAP, or food stamp, legislation — occurred in the Senate and that is the reason he is campaigning for the upper chamber.

“I’m here because the American dream is in peril,” Kingston said. “I am convinced that the battleground to turn America around is the U.S. Senate.”

But Karen Handel, the former Fulton Commission chair and Georgia secretary of state, said the trio of congressmen have had the time in Washington to turn things around.

“Results matter and records count,” Handel said. “We need new leadership in Washington. Frankly, we can’t afford more of the same.”

For businessman David Perdue, every issue — from agriculture to foreign policy — turned back to a discussion on the national debt.

“The greatest threat to our national security is our own personal debt,” Perdue said. “We are bankrupting ourselves with our own stupidity.”

Art Gardner, a Marietta patent attorney, said that while the candidates mostly agree on fiscal conservative policies, he stands out in endorsing a move to the center on social issues.

“I’m asking that we move to a broader statement of what a conservative is,” said Gardner, who also stood apart by supporting a “practical approach” to immigration reform, instead of ruling out amnesty. “That’s the key to victory.”

Minutes before the debate began at Brenau University in Gainesville, Augusta businessman Eugene Yu announced he was dropping out of the race, instead mounting a congressional campaign against Democrat John Barrow in the 12th District.