GROVETOWN, Ga. (AP) -- Georgia's top Republican Senate hopefuls are scrambling to prove who'd be the most conservative opponent to take on Democratic favorite Michelle Nunn in a race that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term.
In a debate here Saturday, most of the leading contenders jumped over one another to highlight their conservative credentials on issues from spending, environmental regulation and immigration to guns and abortion, even as they agreed the party must reach beyond its base if it wants to win more nationally.
Proposals ranged from scrapping the Environmental Protection Agency to repealing the constitutional amendment that allows an income tax.
The debate highlighted the eventual nominee's challenge in the race, despite Georgia leaning to Republicans in recent federal elections. The May 20 primary electorate - and a likely July 22 runoff - will be decided by the state's most conservative voters. Democrats want to frame the eventual GOP nominee as too extreme in a state where Obama got as much as 47 percent of the vote with little effort.
The winner will succeed retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. Nationally, Republicans must gain six seats to regain control of the Senate, but that would be extremely difficult if they lose a Georgia seat they already have.
Rep. Paul Broun, a favorite of conservative activists, used his signature critique of "an out of control federal government" several times Saturday. In a discussion of Obama administration rules capping carbon emissions, he argued that "there's no scientific consensus on man-made global warming."
Phil Gingrey, another House member and a physician like Broun, said he doesn't agree with the administration that "carbon dioxide is definitely a greenhouse gas."
"You might say that a preponderance of scientists believe that CO2 is a greenhouse that contributes to global warming," but then he quickly doubled-down on his critique. "There's no doubt that methane is a greenhouse gas," Gingrey said. "What are we going to do - put a surgical mask on the rear end of every cow?"
Their congressional colleague, Jack Kingston, meanwhile, peppered his answers with references to his sterling ratings from groups such as the American Conservatives Union, National Rifle Association and National Right to Life. He also boasted of an endorsement won Friday from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has kept its promise to engage more directly in 2014 Republican primaries in an effort to subdue tea party influences.
Kingston's recitations reflected his strategy to appeal both to archconservatives and establishment Republicans, without alienating either camp in the internal struggle that has gripped Republicans since Obama's election.
On immigration, "amnesty" was the word of the day, as candidates looked for ways to go beyond their shared opposition to the overhaul that passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year. A bill to improve border security and offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million immigrants here illegally remains stalled in the GOP-led House 10 months after passing the Senate.
"We need a comprehensive system to support the American - I said American - workforce," said former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
"No amnesty period," Broun said, "It's amnesty over my dead body."
Kingston railed against giving "welfare benefits to anyone here illegally."
Gingrey noted the immigration law signed by Republican icon President Ronald Reagan. "Amnesty ... was a mistake back in 1986," he said. "They got the gold mine and we got the shaft."
Gingrey mocked former Florida Jeb Bush's recent comments that coming into the country illegally is "an act of love" for persons wanting to provide for their families. "It's not an act of love for my family or anyone who is unemployed," Gingrey said.
All seven candidates oppose abortion rights, but Handel noted her tenure at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure foundation. As an executive, she played a key role as the breast-cancer research fundraising organization tried to sever its financial ties with Planned Parenthood, which is a leading provider of breast-cancer screenings but also of abortions.
"There's only one person on this stage who has put her pro-life credentials ahead of her paycheck," Handel said.
As he's done throughout the campaign, Perdue, cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, looked to distinguish himself on spending and the economy by emphasizing "40 years in the free enterprise system," as opposed to "four politicians on this stage who've been in office" for a combined six decades. He called the nation's $17 trillion federal debt "the greatest threat to national security," and said sitting politicians - he didn't name Handel or the congressmen - "got us into this."
Handel, meanwhile, took a veiled shot at Perdue, referring to "millionaire elitists who think only those who went to college or who lived outside the country are qualified." Perdue recently apologized to Handel, who does not have a college degree, for suggesting publicly that someone with her lack of educational credentials can't solve the nation's problems.
The debate was sponsored by the Georgia Republican Party.
Minister Derrick Grayson and attorney-engineer Art Gardner also are running but unlikely to qualify for a runoff spot.