Provo • U.S. Senate candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Kennedy were in near-lockstep on issues like health care, gun control, medical marijuana and immigration during a Tuesday debate that highlighted differences in the men’s personality more than their ideology.
Kennedy, a Republican state representative from Alpine, made frequent attempts to ding Romney as flip-flopping carpetbagger, criticizing the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate for his “inconsistent” policy positions and using his first answer of the evening to “welcome” Romney to the Beehive State.
And Romney leaned on his status as a national-level political figure, suggesting he’d be positioned to work with veteran lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to enact compromise legislation.
“I believe I’ll be able to help Utah continue to punch above its weight,” Romney said.
The candidates’ most fiery exchanged occurred in the final moments of Tuesday’s debate, held at the KBYU studios at Brigham Young University.
After Romney suggested there are too many personal attacks in American politics, Kennedy called foul on Romney for describing President Donald Trump as a “phony” and “fraud” during the 2016 campaign, and for describing Robert Jeffress as a “bigot” for the pastor’s past comments about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kennedy — who works as a physician — recently called Jeffress to apologize for Romney’s comment, a move that puzzled Utah political watchers.
“I take anybody that comes to me as a doctor,” Kennedy said. “And I am more than happy to take them as they are.”
But Romney doubled down during the debate, referencing past statements by Jeffress that the Mormon church is a “cult” and a “heresy from the pit of hell,” and similar descriptions of other minority faiths.
“When people express bigotry,” Romney said, “they ought to be called out for it.”
Kennedy repeatedly stated that he stands with the president, supports his agenda, and considers him to be “an extremely capable negotiator.”
And in one seemingly contradictory moment, Kennedy praised the president’s negotiation skills after categorizing the on-again, off-again summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as akin to a 16-year-old’s romance.
“You never know who is doing what,” he said.
After the debate, Kennedy was pressed by reporters on his vote during the 2016 campaign. After initially dodging the question, Kennedy confirmed that he did not vote for Trump, but instead cast a write-in vote for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Romney said he’s happy to support the president on policies that benefit America, and said there are positions on Second Amendment rights and immigration reform — including the construction of a southern border wall — where he agrees with Trump.
“I’ve known the president for a long long time,” Romney said. “The president has endorsed me in this campaign.”
Both Romney and Kennedy expressed support for some forms of medical marijuana legalization, but that they will each vote against a Utah ballot initiative on the subject in November.
Kennedy said he needs to see more data and research on marijuana before endorsing the kind of large-scale changes envisioned by the ballot initiative. He also complimented the nation’s pharmaceutical industry for its creation of life-saving treatments.
“We’re working on this already,” he said. “We need more access to information.”
Romney said medical marijuana is needed, and that the country “ought to move there as quickly as we possibly can.” But he prefers a formal system where patients receive a prescription from a “real” doctor, filled at a “real” pharmacy, and suggested the ballot initiative falls short of that standard.
“It’s going to open the door for corner stores selling marijuana-laced brownies and gummy bears,” Romney said.
Romney said he opposes the creation of new, federal gun laws, with the exception of enhanced background checks and a ban on “bump stocks,” or devices that facilitate the rapid firing of a weapon.
Asked about school shootings, he said campuses should borrow the model of banking institutions, with limited entry, armed guards and, in some cases, metal detectors.
“Banks have figured out how to stop people from robbing a bank,” he said. “Our young people shouldn’t have to worry about going to school. And parents shouldn’t have to worry about losing a child.”
Kennedy said community solutions are more effective at curbing gun violence, and that guns don’t fire themselves. He also criticized Romney for, as governor, signing an assault-weapons ban in Massachusetts.
“My legislative record is clear,“ Kennedy said. “We need to focus on the perpetrator of the crime, not on the weapon that is used.”
Romney responded that the bill he signed as governor was an example of state interests coming together and finding common ground on a state issue. He reiterated that states, and not the federal government, are best positioned to promote public safety.