HUDSON — The gloves had to come off at some point.
They have shared the stage at several candidate forums, but Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent and Brooksville resident Jason Sager didn't pull punches Thursday night in their first full-fledged debate on the way to the Republican primary for the 5th Congressional District seat currently held by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite.
The two candidates tried to distinguish themselves from one another on topics ranging from Social Security to immigration during the debate at Word of Life Fellowship hall. The debate took place in front of a boisterous and sometimes unruly crowd of about 300, which was heavily stacked with Sager supporters sporting red shirts with the slogan "We the People Are Coming."
Both candidates portrayed themselves as Washington outsiders who would bring a people's perspective to Congress.
But as the candidate handpicked by Brown-Waite, who is stepping down because of health issues, Nugent was put on the defensive. Moderator Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune asked him to explain why he didn't announce his bid until after the filing deadline and how that should not be considered "skullduggery."
Nugent, who has said that he deferred to Brown-Waite on the tactics of his filing, acknowledged the strategy was meant to minimize competition.
"You have a problem with the congresswoman, not me," said Nugent, 59.
Sager — a 36-year-old unemployed audio visual engineer who lost his job in 2008 and filed to run last year — pounced.
"The only reason why this could have happened is promoting one's self-interest, not the interests of the people of the district," he said.
But Sager, a strict constitutionalist supported by the tea party, had his own explaining to do. Jackson asked him to respond to critics who called it hypocritical that Sager had collected $18,000 in unemployment benefits, but is on the record opposing the federal government's continuing funding for such benefits.
Sager, who now calls himself a "full-time candidate" and draws a roughly $1,000 monthly salary from campaign contributions, said unemployment is a program mainly administered by the states. He said his struggle to find a job allows him to better identify with millions of out-of-work Americans.
"Yes, I'm unemployed," he said. "That's not something a husband and father is proud to announce from a podium, but it's why I'm in the race today. It gives me the passion and the drive."
Nugent struggled to explain his stance on an oil drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Let's find out what went wrong before we start drilling again," Nugent said.
Sager chided that answer as the same as support for a moratorium.
Nugent criticized Sager's support for a plan that would eliminate Social Security and Medicare. Sager pointed out that the plan calls for a phase-out over 65 years so as not to strip benefits from those who have paid into the system. He said Nugent, in his third term as sheriff, has been "scaring people for years when county commissioners ask him to cut his budget by saying he's going to take officers off the street."
Nugent countered that he returned $2 million to the county general fund last year and cut another $1 million this year.
Sager said the country should deport illegal immigrants despite the cost. Nugent, who touted his experience dealing with immigration officials, called that impractical.
"We don't have the resources," Nugent said, adding that the government needs to first secure the borders and make it easier to get a work visa. "Then we can start to try to remove illegal aliens from our country."
As Republicans, the candidates agreed on plenty of issues, rooted mainly in their disdain for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. They both agreed that the recently passed health care plan should be repealed in the long term and neutered in the short term by stripping its funding.
The Pasco County Republican Executive Committee hosted the debate. At the end, the audience applauded in agreement when committee chairman Randy Maggard offered this parting reminder: "When the election comes around, we want a Republican in the seat, not a Democrat."
The winner will face Land O'Lakes Democrat Jim Piccillo, who does not face primary opposition.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.