PERRY, Ga. — Republican Nathan Deal accused Democrat Jason Carter of being inexperienced and unproven, while Carter zoned in on ethics complaints against the incumbent and Georgia's uneven economic recovery Tuesday, as the candidates sharpened their messages during their first head-to-head debate.
The two and Libertarian Andrew Hunt sparred before a raucous crowd at the Georgia National State Fair. Deal, a 72-year-old former state senator and congressman elected to the governor's office in 2010, swung early and accused Carter of lacking leadership during his four-year-term in the state senate.
After calling Carter "young and inexperienced," Deal questioned why the 39-year-old state senator from Atlanta didn't propose bills or budget amendments to address the problems he now talks about on the campaign trail.
"You've never passed a bill, you've never been put in a position of leadership ... within the DeKalb delegation, you've never been elected to a position within the Democrat caucus of the state Senate," Deal said. "Why would anybody decide you have the leadership skills to lead this state?"
Carter accused Deal of passing blame for the state's economic status, returning to a focus on the state's unemployment rate he has hammered since Georgia's 8.1 percent rate for August was announced.
When Deal took office in January 2011, the state's unemployment rate was 10.1 percent — slightly lower than the historic high of 10.4 percent a year earlier. It had dropped to 6.9 percent by April of this year. Carter pounced as the rate increased, arguing Deal's policies had failed to stabilize the state's economy even as the national picture continued to improve.
"We need a leader who can say as the governor, the buck stops here," said Carter, who is former President Jimmy Carter's grandson.
Deal, pointing to an increase in new jobs and lower unemployment claims, has said the numbers are flawed and hinted that politics was involved.
The candidates also sparred over ethics complaints filed against Deal and recent criticism by a judge of state officials failing to turn over key documents in a lawsuit. That lawsuit resulted in a $700,000 decision plus attorneys' fees in favor of the former state ethics commission director, and the state later settled with three other former employees who had claimed retaliation for work investigating the ethics complaints.
"A little bit of what we did this week as taxpayers is going to pay for the cover-up," Carter said.
Deal defended his office, and said he's been the only candidate to propose changes to the state ethics commission to eliminate conflicts of interest when complaints are reviewed.
"We did not interfere," he said. "If we had we would have been indicted by somebody."
Carter has called for comprehensive ethics reform.
Hunt, former CEO of a nanotechnology firm, said he offers an alternative to both parties' "small changes" that won't make a difference to the state's education or economic development.
"We need very large changes to turn this around," Hunt said.