ORLANDO — Finding a distinction between Republican Senate hopefuls on social and fiscal issues was difficult Saturday. The four candidates largely reflected the views of the tea party and anti-abortion and anti-gay rights organizers.
Some of the biggest applause lines during the 2 1/2-hour debate came when candidates called for cutting ties to the United Nations, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, making abortion illegal in most cases and keeping gays and lesbians from getting married or being protected under hate crime laws.
Half of the debate was devoted to questions on social issues and the other half to questions about federal spending, the federal government vs. states' rights, and similar issues. The Florida Family Policy Council, which organized the effort to put a gay marriage ban in the constitution, co-sponsored the event with the West Orlando Tea Party.
The candidates — former Sen. George LeMieux, former state Rep. Adam Hasner, retired Army Col. Mike McCalister and former Ruth's Chris chief executive Craig Miller — all said they oppose embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage and civil unions, providing gays and lesbians protection under hate crime laws, Internet gambling and the recent deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
"I do not see the need for hate crime legislation, every crime is hateful," said LeMieux. "You don't need a special category for anyone."
"I'm opposed to same sex marriage whether it's in New York or Florida or elsewhere," Hasner said. "In every state where the voters have the opportunity, even in California, they've defended an institution of marriage between one man and one woman."
McCalister, however, stood out in saying that, while he opposes gay marriage, he thinks it should be an issue that's left up to the states. He also was the only candidate to not clearly state when abortion should be allowed. LeMieux and Hasner said the procedures should be illegal except in the cases of rape and incest or when the mother's life is at risk. Miller agreed they should be allowed when the mother was at risk.
"I am torn on the issue of rape and incest, because the unborn child did not ask to be put in that womb," Miller said. Pushed further and asked if he would vote for or against a ban on abortions in those cases, he added: "I need more prayer on the issue. I do."
And while McCalister and Miller said the IRS needs to be abolished, LeMieux and Hasner didn't go quite that far. All agreed the country needs tax reform and that replacing the income tax with a national sales tax has merits.
All bashed on the United Nations, saying the United States shouldn't jeopardize its sovereignty by participating in international movements.
"The United Nations is a corrupt organization," Hasner said.
McCalister received perhaps the biggest applause on the issue.
"When it comes to the UN, we need to make serious amendments to that treaty, or we need to get out of the U.N.," he said. "We do not need the U.N., or any other countries, trying to tell us how to run this place."
LeMieux's views on several issues — stem cell research, abortion, civil unions — were a stark contrast from those of his former boss, former Gov. Charlie Crist. LeMieux managed Crist's 2006 campaign for governor and then served as his chief of staff. It was Crist who appointed LeMieux to fill the last 16 months of Sen. Mel Martinez's term. He was asked about those ties early in the debate.
"As a staff person you give advice. Sometimes that advice is taken, sometimes it is not," he said.