ATLANTA — Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn brushed off criticism from her Democratic primary opponents during her first debate Sunday, defending her support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Second Amendment.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates vying for Georgia's open Senate seat also debated, sharpening their attacks against the two perceived front-runners with just over a week to go before the May 20 primaries.
On the Democratic side, Nunn has been running a centrist campaign, seeking to stay above the partisan fray and call for working with the GOP to get things done in Washington. The daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a moderate Democrat who represented Georgia for years, she has launched TV ads focused on her career running a major nonprofit.
During the debate, one of her opponents, ROTC instructor Todd Anthony Robinson, of Columbus, noted Nunn's ads don't mention she's a Democrat and asked her whether she supports President Barack Obama.
"I think it's self-evident that since I am on the stage here that I am a Democrat," Nunn said, listing her support for increasing the minimum wage, immigration reform and pay equality. "I am absolutely in pursuit of the Democratic nomination and at the same time I want to represent all of Georgia."
Nunn also defended her initial support for military action against Syria, but said she was pleased a diplomatic solution was found instead. She also noted she supported gun rights and said her 11-year-old child is a hunter. She said supports legislation that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and Internet sales.
On the Keystone oil pipeline, Nunn said a federal study had concluded the "environmental impacts would be negligible" and the project would be important for jobs and energy independence. Former state lawmaker Steen Miles and physician Branko Radulovacki both said they opposed the project.
They also criticized Nunn for not appearing at previous debates and forums. Nunn's campaign has said scheduling conflicts prevented her attendance at those prior events. The debate was recorded and scheduled to air Monday at 7 p.m. on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The Republican debate was televised live and featured several testy exchanges among the seven candidates, particularly from former Dollar General CEO David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah.
The two candidates are leading in polls and fundraising. They traded barbs over Perdue's business background and Kingston's voting record, while fending off attacks from Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Handel called Perdue "another out-of-touch elitist" for earlier remarks in which he dismissed her lack of a college degree. Perdue later apologized.
Kingston went after Perdue for contributing to a Democratic candidate in Massachusetts, while Perdue criticized Kingston for serving 11 terms in Congress while supporting term limits. A pivotal moment came when Kingston attacked Perdue's time as CEO of Pillowtex Corp., a North Carolina textile company.
Perdue said he went to Pillowtex to help. The company had emerged from bankruptcy when he started, and its owners decided to sell the business soon after he arrived. But three months after he left the company, it shut down and 7,650 people lost their jobs across the country.
"Just as my record as a member of Congress is being scrutinized, I think someone's business experience is relevant," Kingston said. "My friend is telling everyone I can fix the problems in Washington, yet as CEO of Pillowtex, he bankrupted the company and received a million dollars on the way out."
Perdue said Kingston's attack was "what we've come to be accustomed to in politics." He added: "Congressman Kingston knows full well that Pillowtex was in bankruptcy when I started."
The five leading candidates sought to highlight their conservative credentials. Rep. Paul Broun said he's been championing conservative causes and noted he voted against Rep. John Boehner for speaker.
Also on the May 20 primary ballot are political newcomers Art Gardner, a patent lawyer, and Derrick Grayson, a network engineer.