Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner for U.S. Senate, and his primary opponent Mike Kennedy debated on Tuesday at Brigham Young University in what sounded, at times, like an echo chamber.
The two Republicans agreed on several policy issues. Both support immigration reform, a border wall and repealing the Affordable Care Act, and oppose the medical marijuana ballot initiative Utahns will vote on this November.
They disagreed on at least one thing. Romney, a two-time presidential candidate, said that after repeated school shootings, he’d support increased background checks and banning the sale of bump stocks, gun modifiers like the ones used in last year’s Las Vegas shooting that make semi-automatic weapons fire faster.
Kennedy, a doctor and state lawmaker, created a state school safety commission after the Parkland shooting earlier this year. But in an attempted swipe at Romney, Kennedy said he wouldn’t budge on the Second Amendment.
“My opponent in the past has signed an assault weapon ban as governor of Massachusetts. I’m fine with him changing his opinion, we all have the right to do that,” Kennedy said, as he tried to paint Romney as flip-flopping on gun control. “But I stand firmly with the Second Amendment. My legislative record is clear.”
Romney retorted that he signed the legislation when opposing sides came together on the gun issue to reach a compromise he could support.
The debate again turned tense near the end when Kennedy questioned whether Romney could really collaborate in Congress.
“When he’s labeling President Trump as ‘a phony’ and as ‘a fraud,’ and Pastor [Robert] Jeffress as a ‘bigot,’ I don’t see those as productive steps in building relationships,” Kennedy said.
With time running down, moderator David Magleby almost didn’t allow a response. But Romney insisted.
“First of all, I’ve known the president a long, long time,” Romney began. “And the President has endorsed me in this campaign, which shows he respects people who call ‘em like they see ‘em."
Romney also defended his tweet calling Texas pastor Robert Jeffress a “religious bigot.”
Jeffress, who has made inflammatory comments about Mormonism, Judaism, Islam and other religions, gave the opening prayer at the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
Kennedy later called Jeffress to apologize for his opponent’s tweet, a move Romney called “absolutely inexplicable.”
“Jeffress should be apologizing to Rep. Kennedy and to the people Utah, of my faith and other faiths," Romney said. "He’s said worse about Muslims. When people express bigotry, they ought to be called out for it.”
After the debate, Kennedy, an active Mormon himself, told reporters he stood by his apology to Jeffress.
“I hold firmly to my faith,” he said. “But I also hold firmly to [building] bridges, I don’t burn them down. I’m interested in working with people, even if we have disparate viewpoints.”
Both candidates are vying to replace longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is retiring this year. The winner of the June 26 primary will face Democrat Jenny Wilson in November.
Watch the full debate below.