- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) - Two Republicans seeking a second chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta debated Monday whether the U.S. House’s GOP leaders should be taken to task during the primary campaign in eastern Georgia’s 12th District.

Five Republican candidates are running for their party’s nomination to take on the Deep South’s last white Democratic congressman in east Georgia’s 12th District this fall. All of them showed up for the first debate of the primary campaign in Statesboro. But construction company owner Rick W. Allen and former congressional aide John Stone, both from Augusta, largely ignored three latecomers to the race and argued exclusively with each other.

Allen accused Stone of trying to divide Republicans by calling for the ouster of Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other House GOP leaders. Stone, who’s courting tea party voters, said the current Republican leadership in Congress needs replacing after failing to cut spending and rein in the deficit.

“Boehner and Cantor are not going to be on the ticket in November, but John Barrow is. That’s what I’m going to focus on and that’s who I’m going to defeat,” said Allen. He said he’s not happy with Boehner and other House leaders but said he would wait until after the election to decide what to do about them.

Stone, who opposed Barrow in 2008 and lost the race by 32 percentage points, criticized Allen for refusing to debate him earlier - before three other candidates joined the race for the May 20 primary. He insisted debating the effectiveness of Republicans’ congressional leadership was appropriate for a primary campaign.

“If we don’t bring this new leadership, if we don’t become a new party, it doesn’t matter if we win this seat or not,” said Stone, a former aide to GOP Reps. Charlie Norwood and Max Burns. “This primary is about the heart and soul of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”

The GOP now dominates the Deep South, where white Democrats once ruled, and Barrow is the lone white Democrat to resist that tide among the Southern congressional delegations.

The 12th District seat sprawls across 19 eastern Georgia counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Dublin and Vidalia. All five GOP candidates agreed on most major issues raised during the debate at Ogeechee Technical College. All favored repealing the health care law championed by President Barack Obama, opposed military intervention in Ukraine and weren’t willing to embrace medical marijuana at a federal level.

The three Republicans vying with Allen and Stone stayed out of the fray and tried to distinguish themselves in other ways.

State Rep. Delvis Dutton of Glennville said he’d built “one of the most conservative records in the state Legislature” after serving just four years. He said he’s the only candidate with a voting record that can be contrasted with Barrow‘s.

Eugene Yu of Augusta, a political newcomer and founder of a now defunct military contracting company, said his background as a Korean-American who immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager would highlight diversity in the GOP. Yu joined the race for Barrow’s seat in early March after dropping out of Georgia’s crowded U.S. Senate campaign.

Diane Vann, a nurse from Macon, wants to bring an impeachment case against Obama. Her address puts her roughly 50 miles outside the 12th District, which is legal but gives her a built-in disadvantage.

Asked if he supported term limits, Allen said he would stay in office no more than four terms - or eight years. Stone promised to serve no more than six years. Dutton and Yu both hedged, declining to give a specific limit. Vann said members of Congress should take “a break” after three terms.

Barrow won re-election to a sixth term in the last election with 54 percent of the vote, a big win considering his district had been redrawn to favor Republicans. GOP leaders in part blamed a crowded, expensive and bruising primary race for weakening their 2012 nominee, Lee Anderson.

Allen and Stone have been running full-time since last summer. Dutton and Yu joined in the last two months.

Republican candidates will meet next April 8 in Laurens County, followed by debates April 24 in Richmond County and May 1 in Coffee County.

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