U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, speak at a 2011 town hall in Fitzgerald. Chambliss is leaving the Senate when his term ends next year.
By Greg Bluestein and Jim Galloway
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA (MCT) -- Outgoing Sen. Saxby Chambliss talked at a tribute in his honor Monday of bridge-building and bipartisanship. Republicans competing for his seat offered a sharp contrast.
None of the major candidates seeking Chambliss' seat spoke ill of the two-term senator at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce event packed with big-name politicians and big-money donors. But none were willing to claim his mantel as a Republican who can cross party lines and forge consensus with the Democrats who control the Senate and the White House.
"I certainly believe it must be time for us to stand our ground," Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta said after the event.
The exception was Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive, who wants to reap a November reward if Republicans nominate a hard-right tea party favorite. Chambliss said her father, former Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, was a friend and counselor, and the younger Nunn said she'd use both their records as a guidepost.
"I think people do respect the tradition of our great Georgia senators," she said. "And I'm lucky to have a father who was one of them."
The GOP contenders are wary of being cast as a moderate in a race edging ever further to the right. Campaigns by Gingrey and Rep. Paul Broun of Athens, two of the most conservative House members, have Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, former Secretary of State Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue worried about being outflanked on the right.
Chambliss didn't address the rightward tilt of his would-be successors, but he praised the groundwork he laid with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia on federal debt and spoke of the importance of bipartisan negotiations like the Gang of Six group that sought consensus on immigration and budget policy.
"I don't mind crossing party lines. If Republicans had a patent on all the good ideas, we'd be in power forever," he said. "We don't have a patent on all those good ideas. It's difficult in Washington with the atmosphere right now. It's more difficult than ever, I think."
On the campaign trail, the main distinction between the five GOP candidates so far revolves around experience, not policy. The three congressmen say their congressional record spotlights their conservative philosophy while Perdue and Handel say their fresh perspectives can give new life to the Republican fight against Democratic hegemony.
Badgered by reporters on Monday, the candidates sounded unlikely to carry on Chambliss' bipartisan tradition after he retires next year.
Kingston talked of past successes with Democrats but questioned the good of bipartisan negotiations if both sides weren't willing to cooperate. Handel's camp said she would work to "lead people to a place of common ground" with a fresh perspective. And Broun outlined the limited circumstances where he's willing to cross party lines.
"I'm working with Democrats on protecting people's privacy and stopping this NSA intrusion into people's lives that is totally against our Constitution under the Fourth Amendment," said Broun.
Of all the Republicans, Perdue seemed most open to limited talks with Democrats. He said Chambliss was the target of "unwarranted criticism" from within his party, and said he was "willing to work with anybody" as long as it didn't jeopardize his principles.
Gingrey took a different tack. At a Republican forum in Rome on Saturday, the Marietta lawmaker vowed he wouldn't follow Chambliss' lead and join a Senate group seeking an immigration agreement. He explained his reluctance on Monday by telling of a recent speech he made at a University of Georgia fraternity house.
"I told them if you want to do something that's in your heart, don't let people talk you out of it," Gingrey said. "It takes courage of conviction to have the power of one, to be your own agent."