- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

DAVIDSON, N.C. (AP) - The candidate in North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary with backing from the party’s Washington establishment came under little direct criticism Tuesday night as his top rivals had their first real chance to challenge him face to face.

Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, defended his legislative record while tea party favorite Greg Brannon picked at him on the health care overhaul and national education standards. Tillis criticized Brannon on a gun rights question and said he was proud of leading the Republican takeover in North Carolina politics after the GOP had been out of power for 140 years.

For his part, Tillis aimed his words largely at freshman Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this November. Her seat is considered critical to Republicans for the six additional seats they need to win this fall to take control of the Senate.

“I’m running for the U.S. Senate because Kay Hagan’s failed the people of North Carolina,” Tillis said during the live TV debate on the Davidson College campus north of Charlotte. “I led a conservative revolution in Raleigh that the liberals don’t like but conservatives like a lot.”

Brannon, along with Baptist minister Mark Harris and former Army nurse Heather Grant, shared the stage with Tillis for the campaign’s first TV forum two weeks away from the primary. In-person absentee voting begins on Thursday. The leading primary vote-getter needs more than 40 percent of the vote to avoid a mid-July runoff. Two more debates were expected in the next week, including one Wednesday night.

Tillis, the leading fundraiser in the eight-candidate primary, faced few direct accusations from the other three Republicans in the debate, giving him time to try to convince primary voters that he’s the best candidate to challenge Hagan.

Brannon said North Carolina took on the new Common Core national education standards distrusted by conservatives under Tillis‘ watch in the legislature. State education leaders approved them while Tillis was a House member but not yet speaker. Brannon also attempted to suggest that Tillis isn’t that committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that while he was speaker in 2011 the House voted in favor of operating a state online health insurance exchange.

“Again this is a distinction between Thom and I,” Brannon said, pointing out that the Constitution makes no reference to federal powers over health care. “The state is sovereign on these issues.”

Tillis responded that the House passed a bill in 2011 directing state attorneys to challenge the law in court. A Democratic governor vetoed the bill and it never became law. The General Assembly last year refused to expand Medicaid and operate an exchange.

“We’ve done everything within our legal power to try to stop this bill - this disaster,” Tillis said.

Tillis later criticized Brannon in response to a voter’s question about whether the candidates would support allowing convicted felons and people with mental health issues to own guns. Brannon responded that Tillis misunderstood him.

Harris, the former president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, and Grant didn’t criticize Tillis by name. But Harris suggested his integrity made him the most qualified.

“You can have all the money, you can have all the experience, you can have all the knowledge of the Constitution and whatever,” Harris said. “But if you don’t have character, what do you really have?”

Hagan and other Democrats have focused squarely on Tillis in recent commercials. Tillis has accused them of trying to meddle in the GOP primary by attempting to weaken his candidacy.

Political cash has poured into North Carolina - more than $13 million in outside spending already by super PACs and other political committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Most of that money has been spent against Hagan, who faces her own primary next month against two little-known opponents. Her campaign spent Tuesday night sending out emails, mostly criticizing Tillis.

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