Democratic gubernatorial candidates and former Gov. Roy Barnes sits-in on the Republican gubernatorial debates at the Georgia Press Association Annual meeting, Thursday, June 17, 2010 in Jekyll Island, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)<BR>
ATLANTA -- With just nine days left until Georgia's primary, the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for governor faced off in back-to-back debates Sunday night.
Republicans sparred over ethics, with state insurance commissioner John Oxendine hitting back against fresh allegations that he was the target of an investigation in the mid 1990s looking into whether he pressured insurance executives seeking rate increases to hire attorneys who were campaign supporters.
Former Attorney General Mike Bowers -- a backer of Oxendine rival Karen Handel -- told the Atlanta Journal-Constitutiuon that he conducted a probe and referred findings to the U.S. attorney. No charges were ever filed.
Oxendine fired back at Bowers at Sunday's debate, sponsored by WAGA-TV in Atlanta, saying Bowers "clearly abused his power because when he referred to a legitimate agency nothing ever happened."
Oxendine denied any wrongdoing and said he was being attacked as the presumed front runner in the July 20 primary.
All four of the leading Republicans defended themselves over questions about ethics.
Nathan Deal said a congressional probe looking into his auto salvage business dealings with the state was politically motivated.
"Not until I was running for governor did anyone suggest anything of this nature," the Gainesville Republican said.
Eric Johnson, former state senator from Savannah, defended his dismissal of an ethics complaint against former Speaker Glenn Richardson, who ultimately resigned after allegations of an affair with a lobbyist.
"If we knew then what we knew now we would have gone after Speaker Richardson," Johnson said.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel continued to insist that she was not a member of the Log Cabin Republicans despite claims by a former leader of the group that she was.
"Absolutely not," Handel said. She allowed Sunday night that she did write a check to the gay Republican group "as a sponsorship" but that did not mean she was a member. A spokesman had earlier suggested the check was not Handel's.
Each of the Republicans said they supported tougher ethics laws, with Oxendine saying he wants an independent state ethics agency and open records laws for the state Legislature.
Johnson touted his role going after legislative tax cheats. But he said it was wrong to suggest the state Legislature "is like this fraternity house or this cat house."
Handel disagreed saying the good old boy network at the Capitol was alive and well.
There were a few lively jousts between candidates. Oxendine -- a strong proponent of eliminating the state income tax-- suggested Handel is a recent convert.
"I'm glad (she) has come along with me on that," he said.
Deal and Johnson both suggested that calls to erase the state's income tax -- which brings in half of the state's tax revenue -- was irresponsible and could lead to more teacher layoffs, among other budget problems.
The Democratic debate was a more wonkish affair free of fireworks.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Georgia National Guard Commander David Poythress agreed that local communities in Georgia should be able to vote on whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales in the state. Gov. Sonny Perdue has said that he opposes legislation that would give local communities the right to permit alcohol to be sold in stores on the Sabbath.
The Democrats also staked out positions on whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend state colleges, a hot topic among Republicans in the race ever since Cobb County authorities arrested a Kennesaw State University student in the country illegally.
Porter said if you're not here legally "you shouldn't be allowed to attend.
"We all have a duty and obligation to obey the law and we should obey the law," he said.
Baker did not answer the question directly during the forum but told reporters afterward he agreed with the state Board of Regents policy which allows illegal immigrants to attend so long as they do not receive cheaper in-state tuition.
"But I think its a Regents call on that," he said.
Poythress said that if the university knows that a person is illegally in the country, they have no option but to report them to the federal authorities but added that the Board of Regents shouldn't be in the business of enforcing federal criminal law.
The candidates split on whether offshore drilling should be permitted off the Georgia coast in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Porter offered the strongest opposition, saying he supports alternative energy sources like, wind and solar power as well as turning wood chips into an energy source.
Barnes said he would need assurances that is what is happening in the gulf would not happen again but generally do agree with drilling.
Poythress and Baker said that while they wouldn't rule out new drilling down the road, it was not the time to pursue such initiatives.
The Democrats spent a good part of the debate focused on education, which has been a theme throughout the campaign.
Seven Democrats and seven Republicans are competing for their party's nomination in the July 20 primary.