- Associated Press - Thursday, April 24, 2014

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) - The five Republicans seeking Iowa’s U.S. Senate nomination seemed to agree more than disagree Thursday in their final formal debate before the June 3 primary.

There were no political attacks, only nuances during the 90-minute debate held at Iowa Public Television’s studios near Des Moines.

Retired business executive Mark Jacobs, of West Des Moines, said he would oppose scrapping the federal income tax and the IRS, unlike state Sen. Joni Ernst, of Red Oak, Sioux City college professor Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, of Clive.

Jacobs, who has spent the most - more than $1 million - on television advertising, parried some with Ernst, a first-term state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard.

“I’m the only one that’s had the opportunity to inherit a fiscal mess and bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy,” said Jacobs, CEO of Reliant Energy in Texas before moving back to his native Iowa in 2012.

Ernst followed saying, “Four years ago, Iowa was in a fiscal mess. That’s why I was elected. … Iowa’s turned around.”

Also participating was businessman Scott Schaben, of Urbandale, who said no single person can turn around a business or an organization. “You can’t turn a business around on your own,” he said.

It was the first and only statewide televised debate for the candidates and it aired live. The five are vying to win 35 percent of the vote in the primary. If no candidate meets that threshold, a party convention will decide the nomination.

The debate came at the end of the first day of early voting for the primary.

The Republican nominee will face U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, of Waterloo, who is the only Democrat seeking the seat held by retiring five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

Most of them took a turn ripping Braley, a four-term U.S. House member from Waterloo who backed the major legislation sought by President Barack Obama before Republicans gained control of the House in 2010.

But the candidates engaged the panel of political writers and broadcasters almost exclusively. Ernst has contrasted herself most with Jacobs while campaigning around the state. But she repeatedly said during the debate that she agreed with her rivals, including Jacobs.

There were moments of levity that interrupted the dry discussion of tax, regulation, spending and health care policy.

“The tax code has five times the number of words as the Bible and none of the good news,” Whitaker cracked.

During discussion of raising the retirement age for Medicare, Clovis, the oldest candidate in the field at 64, joked: “I have far more in the rear view than in the windshield.”

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Follow Tom Beaumont on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TomBeaumont

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