Research Triangle Park, N.C. — It was the pastor in the race who drew first blood in Monday night's televised debate between Republican U.S. Senate primary candidates.
"It is so critical that we have someone who is electable," Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte said when asked what distinguished him from the other candidates. "There are two individuals on this platform tonight who carry with them baggage that I believe Kay Hagan will use to rip them apart."
Harris was referring to House Speaker Thom Tillis and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary. Polls have consistently shown either one of the three as most likely to win the May 6 primary or participate in a summer runoff primary. The winner will take on Hagan, an incumbent Democrat.
A fourth candidate, Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant, did not draw fire from her three competitors. Consistent with her other debate and forum appearances, Grant also passed on the opportunity to be critical of the other candidates.
"For me, this race is not about being the next senator. What it is about is the future of our nation," she said.
The debate was the third televised showdown between the four candidates and the last before the primary. It was hosted by UNC-TV at the station's Research Triangle Park studios.
Harris landed his first jab at Brannon, referencing a lawsuit in which the obstetrician was found civilly liable for misleading investors and ordered to pay more than $500,000 in restitution and legal fees.
Most polls show Tillis is closest to achieving the 40 percent support needed to avoid a runoff, leaving Harris and Brannon jockeying for second place and the opportunity to call for a runoff.
Brannon largely brushed off Harris' criticism, preferring instead to focus on Tillis.
He implied several times that states like North Carolina made a mistake when it deferred to the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.
"The state must say no to the Supreme Court," Brannon said.
Brannon left UNC-TV studios before he could be pressed on that answer. But throughout the debate, Brannon insisted he was the only candidate with the constitutional knowledge to represent North Carolina in the Senate.
He also criticized Tillis for saying on a radio show that the ACA, referred to as "Obamacare" by some, was "a good idea" that couldn't be paid for.
"I think this is a distinction between myself and Thom," he said.
Democrats have cited that same radio interview in ads attacking Tillis, who brushed off the criticism.
"It doesn't sound like either Greg Brannon or Kay Hagan get my sarcasm," he said after the debate.
During the debate and afterwards, Tillis pointed to his record on the Affordable Care Act, saying that, under his leadership, the General Assembly passed a measure prohibiting North Carolina from establishing an online marketplace under the law.
Harris was even more pointed in his criticism. In his closing statement, he referenced an episode in which Tillis pushed for a big campaign donor to be appointed to the UNC Board of Governors, considered a plum patronage appointment. He also pointed to a prediction that Tillis made in 2012 that the marriage ban would pass but later be repealed.
"It's a generational issue," Tillis was quoted as saying, according to The Associated Press. "If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years."
Harris seized on that statement, saying Tillis isn’t truly committed to conservative values. He likened Tillis to U.S. Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, Republicans who many in more conservative circles view as too accommodating to Democrats and centrists.
Tillis’ campaign has focused on pragmatism and the ability to get things done.
"Being conservative is something you do, not something you say," Tillis said, playing up his experience in the legislature.
He countered Harris by saying his Republican opponents were adopting tactics used by Hagan and Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate.
"I think that's just borrowing from the same fiction the Democrats are trying to use against us," Tillis said.
Brannon, meanwhile, called for Republicans to "run toward" rock-ribbed positions on social issues such as abortion.
"The Republican Party is a great party because of the sanctity of life," he said.
Asked why he felt the need to point to what he characterized as "baggage" Monday night, Harris said voters should consider who is best able to take on Hagan.
"If we don't point them out now in this primary, I can assure you they will be pointed out in the second week of October," Harris said, referencing the beginning of North Carolina's early-voting period, when many negative ads are running.
During the debate, Tillis focused his criticism on Hagan and President Barack Obama.
"I am disgusted by the lack of respect for the Constitution demonstrated by Kay Hagan," Tillis said in reply to a question about how courts and lawmakers should interpret the country's founding document.