ALBANY - The negative tone that has dominated the Democratic gubernatorial race for weeks continued Wednesday as Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox squared off in their first televised debate.
In her closing statement, following an hour of questions and answers aired statewide, Cox went after Taylor in his hometown.
"Do we want for governor an old-style politician who has used his position to benefit himself, his family and his friends?'' she asked, echoing themes of campaign ads she has used to hammer the lieutenant governor.
Taylor took exception to what he said were three weeks of ads the Cox campaign has run attacking not only him but his father and sister.
"We've even notified the family dog to be on alert,'' he said to laughter from the audience at the Albany Municipal Auditorium.
Cox and Taylor shared the stage Wednesday with two lesser-known candidates in the July 18 primary, Marietta businessman Bill Bolton and retiree Mac McCarley of Stockbridge.
The winner of the Democratic nomination is expected to face Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in November. Perdue is heavily favored to beat back a GOP primary challenge from Ray McBerry of Stockbridge.
Wednesday's debate will be followed in short order by two more debates between the Democratic candidates for governor.
The four will meet again on Saturday inside the studios of WSB-TV in Atlanta and again in the capital on Sunday night at Georgia Public Television's headquarters.
Education drew the most attention Wednesday, with the panel of four journalists asking several questions on the issue.
Taylor emphasized his record during 12 years in the state Senate representing Albany and eight years as lieutenant governor. He talked about his role in creating the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs and his proposal for a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes in grades K-3.
"All of the studies show that lower class sizes ... (are) critical to the success of teachers and, ultimately, of students,'' he said.
Cox said she wants to create a stronger link between Georgia high schools and technical colleges, so that students could learn skills while in school that would make them ready for high-paying jobs when they graduate.
Cox and Taylor took Perdue to task for pushing to reduce class sizes this year after urging the General Assembly to hold off on planned reductions during his first three years in office. At the time, the governor cited the need for budget austerity brought on by sluggish state tax revenues.
"We are long overdue for a governor who is not focused on election-year gimmickry for education,'' Cox said. "Let's have a governor who is willing to take the long view.''
But Republicans point to the bottom line on education spending, which has gone up 18 percent since Perdue took office in 2003, and to the class-size reductions he steered through the legislature this year.
"Obviously, Mark and Cathy have not been at the Capitol,'' said Clelia Davis, spokeswoman for the Georgia Republican Party. "All the things they're saying Governor Perdue has already done.''
Taylor and Cox also took similar stands on several other issues, including the need for Congress to step up on illegal immigration, opposition to gay marriage and that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare,'' a phrase used by both.
Early in the debate, Taylor said he hoped the candidates would stick to issues and not resort to "personal attacks.''
But in response to a question about negative campaign ads, he and Cox accused each other of putting out lies. Taylor complained that Cox's ads haven't been limited to him but have targeted members of his family.
"Every ad I've put on the air is about issues,'' Taylor said.
"Mark plays the victim rather well,'' Cox shot back. "He is so intertwined with all his family businesses that it's absolutely fair discussion.''
McCarley, who said he's running for governor to push for more benefits for veterans returning from Iraq, criticized Cox and Taylor for the negative campaigning.
"It doesn't get anything done when they argue among themselves,'' McCarley said.
Bolton said the attacks actually play to his advantage because they give him more time to get out his message on issues.