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NC GOP Candidates For U.S. Senate Square Off In First TV Debate

Michael Tomsic

Four Republican U.S. Senate candidates gave their views on limited government, Obamacare and even a little college basketball Tuesday night at Davidson College. It was the first live televised debate in the race

Greg Brannon is an obstetrician in Cary and Tea Party activist, and his strategy last night was clear from his first answer. 

"I do think this is a clear distinction between Thom and myself," he said.

"Thom" is state speaker of the house Thom Tillis. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super-PAC and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are in his camp.

Brannon kept his focus on Tillis throughout the debate. Here he is on Obamacare:

"Thom actually started state exchanges, I think it was House bill 115 in May of 2011," Brannon said. "The idea that we should actually bow to anything the federal government says to – the state is sovereign over these issues."

The state House did pass a bill that would’ve started a health insurance exchange, but it died in the Senate. Tillis later played a role in North Carolina’s decision not to expand Medicaid or set up an exchange.

For the most part, Tillis focused on someone who wasn’t there.

"I think this is a classic example where Kay Hagan has failed the American people and the people in North Carolina," he said, criticizing the Democratic Senator for supporting Obamacare and other parts of the president’s agenda. 

"Kay Hagan doesn’t need tell the nation what the minimum wage needs to be," Tillis said.

He's against raising the minimum wage, and so are the other candidates. Here’s Charlotte pastor Mark Harris:

"I agree, the minimum wage – while honestly I don’t question the motive of those that support the minimum wage and an increase in the minimum wage, but I do think that there’s a misunderstanding of those that feel like it’s a good thing for the economy," Harris said.

That answer tells you a lot about how Harris approached the debate. He always pointed out how he agreed with the other candidates and never took direct shots at them. He also emphasized his Christian faith.

"The role of government is simply to secure and protect the rights that we have," he said. "And those rights were not given by government, those rights were given by God."

Another candidate is Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant. She talked about how families are still struggling because of the lingering effects of the recession, and she said improving the economy is what matters most. 

"Because without a stable, growing economy, those people who live everyday lives do not have the ability to put a roof over their head or food on their table, and when it comes right down to it, those are the two most important things," Grant said.

She, Harris, Tillis and Brannon agreed that the federal government has become too big. But they had different ways of cutting it. Grant said get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency because it’s stifling jobs.

Tillis and Harris said the Department of Education should go because bureaucrats in D.C. shouldn’t tell local teachers what to do.

And Brannon had a laundry list of things to eliminate. 

"Health and Human Services, Obamacare - number one," he said. "Education, number two. The Fed, gone. IRS, gone."

Brannon basically said if it’s not in a specific article and section of the Constitution, the government shouldn’t do it.

Tillis positioned himself as a more moderate candidate (he used the phrase "practical conservative") who knows how to pass legislation.

"I’ve been the leader of a conservative revolution in Raleigh, and we’ve moved forward with conservative principles that have made sense," Tillis said, pointing to the tax cuts the state passed last year as an example.

On other issues, the candidates largely agreed: repeal Common Core education standards, protect gun rights, don’t legalize marijuana, etc.

During a lightning round at the end of the debate, moderator Tim Boyum asked a few lighter questions.

"In an all North Carolina Final Four, who do you cheer for?" he asked.

Grant said UNC, Brannon played to the crowd by saying Davidson, Tillis said N.C. State, and Harris got the biggest laugh of the night with his answer.

"I have a son at UNC and a son at Wake Forest, but I would know that the Bible says where your money is, there your heart will be also, so Wake Forest," Harris said with a laugh. "Wake Forest is who I’d support."    

In other hard-hitting news, three of the four candidates said they favor Lexington-style barbecue.

After the debate, some people in the audience still weren’t sure which candidate they prefer.

The primary will be Harper Hicks’ first time voting. He’s a home-school student in Charlotte who’s about to graduate. 

"I think it was interesting to see Greg Brannon and Thom Tillis go at it with each other," Hicks said. "And I thought Mr. Harris, especially his closing statements were extremely strong, and he kind of showed his core values of character."

The candidates are scheduled to have two more debates before the primary, which is May 6.