SAVANNAH, Ga. - With their key rivals away voting in Washington, four lesser-known candidates vying to succeed U.S. Sen. Zell Miller took the spotlight in a debate Thursday with few fireworks aside from questions about one contender's personal life.
In the first debate between Democratic candidates running in the July 20 primary, millionaire businessman Cliff Oxford received the most pointed questions from two long shot rivals in the absence of U.S. Rep. Denise Majette, who is widely considered the front-runner.
Mr. Oxford had to address his two divorces when candidate Sid Cottingham asked whether he had revealed "all the personal baggage you have" when former President Jimmy Carter tapped Mr. Oxford to run for the Senate.
"I hate to get painted by the Republican Party, with their family values stuff, all with the same brush," said Mr. Cottingham, a Douglas attorney.
Mr. Oxford's second wife, Caryn Oxford, described him as "physically, emotionally and verbally abusive" in court papers from their 2002 divorce.
She is now supporting Mr. Oxford's campaign, and both have chalked the allegation up to heated rhetoric spurred by divorce attorneys.
"Not only did I disclose it, but the Republicans disclosed it. They peddled that all through Washington weeks before I announced," Mr. Oxford said. "She's happy, my two children are happy, and I'm happy. What else can you ask for?"
Mary Squires, a state senator from Norcross, tried to trip up first-time candidate Mr. Oxford by asking his thoughts on "vertical integration" in agriculture. The industry term is used by meatpackers to describe ownership of livestock from birth to slaughter.
"I grew up on a small family farm, but I don't think we ever talked about vertical integration," Mr. Oxford said.
"That's a fancy word. I don't know if I can give you a fancy answer to that."
Instead, he answered that he would help farmers battle the oil industry over using corn to make ethanol as an alternative fuel.
Along with Democrat Ms. Majette, Republican Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins missed the debate sponsored by the Georgia Press Association because of pending votes in the U.S. House.
That left GOP contender Herman Cain, former chairman of the Godfather's Pizza chain, alone to push his plan for scrapping the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax.
"It will reduce the cost of (consumer) items over time by 25 to 20 percent because everything that we buy in this country has a built in ... hidden cost" from taxes businesses pass on to consumers, Mr. Cain said.
Democrats laid out their own economic prescriptions. Mr. Oxford touted his pet issue of boosting the middle class by keeping American jobs from being shipped overseas. He and Ms. Squires both said they favored raising the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.
"Who can live off of that?" Ms. Squires said. "If the minimum wage kept up with the cost of living increase it would now be at $8.32 an hour, which is still not very good."
In Atlanta, meanwhile, Mr. Isakson's campaign made public his tax returns for 2003 and encouraged his rivals to do the same.
According to the documents, Mr. Isakson paid federal income tax of $72,742 and state income tax of $16,214 last year on adjusted gross income of $398,015.