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GOP candidates square off, stick to roles in South Hall debate
Cagle comes under fire from foes among 7 men seeking nomination
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Georgia gubernatorial candidates are introduced during the9th District Republican Party's governors debate at The Venue at Friendship Springs in Flowery Branch, on Saturday, March 31, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

After months on the campaign, Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidates have honed their messages, and they stuck to them during the 9th District Republican Party’s debate on Saturday, March 31.

Seven candidates took the stage in South Hall and — outside of lesser-known quantities like new candidate Eddie Hayes, a former restaurant owner, and teacher and author Marc Urbach, who strode onto the stage in a large, black cowboy hat toting a Bible and one of his own books — they played to type before an audience of hundreds.

Election 2018 dates

Deadline to change address and register: April 24

Early voting: April 30 to May 18

Saturday voting: May 12

Primary: May 22

Primary runoff: July 24

Election Day: Nov. 6

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the steady hand with decades in office. Former Buckhead Sen. Hunter Hill, conservative military man. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, businessman populist. Clay Tippins, the data-driven former Navy SEAL. Cumming Sen. Michael Williams, conservative firebrand.

Hayes presented himself as a man of deep Christian faith, anchoring most of his answers in the Bible. He was the lone voice to offer criticism for the late Zell Miller, a former governor and Georgia senator, and the HOPE Scholarship he founded.

Hayes said he thinks the HOPE Scholarship had done good things for Georgia and its students, but noted that it’s funded through a state lottery — gambling that he finds immoral.

“The Bible tells me I’m not supposed to be doing those things,” Hayes said.

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Tim Youngblood, chairman of the Lumpkin County Republican Party, wears a “PROUD TO BE REPUBLICAN” pin during the 9th District Governors Debate at The Venue at Friendship Springs in Flowery Branch, on Saturday, March 31, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
Urbach brought the fire early, calling the other men on the stage with him “fake conservatives and liars” and branded himself a statesman in his opening statement.

A straw poll was conducted during the debate that had thousands of votes by the time the event ended around 7:30 p.m., but results were not immediately available. Rebecca Yardley, first vice chairwoman of the 9th District GOP, said a technical problem had delayed poll results but promised they would be published.

While political lines might be getting complicated in Washington, D.C., as President Donald Trump’s unorthodox approach to governing pushes Republicans and Democrats out of their comfort zones, “conservative” was the word of the night in South Hall.

Candidates blasted government spending and taxes, but Amazon and the tax incentives it will be offered by the state also took heat from almost everyone on the stage.

Cagle was the only one who said he would welcome Amazon and the jobs it would bring to Georgia, putting him at odds with the rest of the men on the stage — and not for the first time.

Cagle remains the frontrunner in the primary with the most cash on hand, most name recognition and, according to the few polls taken in the race so far, the most current support from likely voters.

Even before a hometown crowd, Cagle was under attack as a “career politician” and even a “bully” in the Georgia Senate for almost the entire debate, either from Williams, Tippins or Hill.

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Campaign signs outside of The Venue at Friendship Springs before the start of the 9th District Governors Debate in Flowery Branch, on Saturday, March 31, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
One politician was almost immune from criticism on Saturday: Gov. Nathan Deal. Debate moderator Greg Bluestein, political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asked the candidates to name one area where they “disagree with the current governor.”

Almost none did. Kemp outright said he didn’t “want to get into those type of issues” with Deal. Hill said he wanted to eliminate the state income tax, a position not shared by the governor.

Most candidates instead rallied around their support of religious freedom legislation, which Deal vetoed in the 2017 session of the Georgia General Assembly, and most laid praise upon the governor, a Hall County resident, and his record in office.

The debate Saturday was the only Republican gubernatorial debate in Hall County ahead of the May 22 primary. If there’s a runoff in the primary, that election would take place in July and the general election in November.

Video of the debate can be found here.

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