Republican candidates for governor spar in midstate

CENTERVILLE — Six of the seven candidates for the Republican nomination for governor took part in a debate in Centerville on Tuesday, marking the first face-off between the GOP candidates in Middle Georgia.

The primary is set for July 20. John Oxendine, the state insurance commissioner, running ahead of the other six in some polls, was the only candidate missing from the debate. Organizers of the event left an empty seat for him.

The discussion rarely wandered far from the topic of the incumbent governor, Houston County native Sonny Perdue, and the budget deficit he is dealing with in Atlanta.

State Sen. Eric Johnson, a longtime Savannah legislator, was alone among the candidates in citing his work with Perdue and praised the governor as a “fiscal conservative.”

The other candidates seemed to keep Perdue at arm’s length.

“I believe we should prioritize the state budget by merit, not politics,” said Jeff Chapman, six-term state senator from Brunswick. “The next governor is going to have a very difficult task of trying to hold the line (on spending).”

No candidate endorsed raising state taxes to even the budget.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel warned against cutting taxes without “passing the buck” to local municipalities and proposed to “look at” a 10 percent state work force reduction.

“We do have to get in that budget and make the tough decisions,” Handel said.

Citing his experience in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Nathan Deal touted his support for the 2001 and 2003 rounds of federal income tax cuts.

“I believe we should move more toward a consumption-based approach,” Deal said. Deal touted his support for a “fair tax” — a flat tax rate based on retail spending.

Ray McBerry, a small business owner from Henry County and self-described “constitutionalist,” received the most resounding applause with his fiery anti-Washington rhetoric and his call to “get rid of every vestige of socialism.”

Austin Scott, a longtime member of the Georgia state house from Tifton, appeared to be the most moderate of the candidates at the forum. Scott objected to vouchers for private schools, a mainstay of Republican policy toward education, and promoted environmental protection.

Deal recently announced that he will soon retire from his congressional seat, though when exactly he will depart Washington for good seems to be in doubt. During a segment of the debate when the candidates were given the chance to ask each other questions, Johnson asked Deal if he would resign his seat in Washington on March 31, as he has suggested, or when the health-care vote was completed.

Deal left the door open to resigning before the House of Representatives votes on President Obama’s health- care proposal.

“I’m still a bit confused,” Johnson responded.

The event was held at the Galleria Conference Center.

To contact writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.