CEDAR CITY — Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Jenny Wilson squared off in a highly anticipated debate Tuesday that played out much like a friendly disagreement between a brother and sister.
Wilson threw a few soft jabs, referring to Romney as "multiple choice Mitt" a couple of times, but the two-time GOP presidential candidate let it slide while explaining his consistency on issues such as guns and immigration.
Romney, in fact, said he or Wilson would represent Utah well in the U.S. Senate, though they would come at the job with different governing philosophies and policies. The two have known each other for a long time and Wilson worked for Romney during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
At one point, they decided to abandon courtesy titles and call each other Mitt and Jenny.
As Romney noted afterward, there was no anger or "brickbats" between the two "friends" during the hourlong debate at Southern Utah University. Wilson described Romney as "gracious" for mentioning their work together during the Olympics.
Even the crowd was well-behaved after several stern warnings to refrain from clapping or booing. Security also was much tighter after a man stormed the stage at the Utah Debate Commission's 2nd Congressional District debate in St. George last month.
Amid the congeniality, some of the candidates' differences emerged on several issues, including the GOP tax cut, gun laws, immigration and President Donald Trump.
The Republican-controlled Congress is not holding the president accountable, Wilson said.
Trump, she said, ridicules people and doesn't trust his own cabinet. She said he turned the summit on North Korea into a photo op. Impeaching Trump should be considered depending on the outcome of the Mueller report, she said.
"We're on pause right now with this president," Wilson said.
Romney said "it doesn't make sense to be talking about impeachment, not for a sitting president." He said Trump has done some things he would have done, specifically the Republican tax plan, business deregulation and reducing the sizes of two Utah national monuments.
At the same time, he said he has called Trump out over divisive, racist or misogynistic remarks.
"I don't want to become a gadfly talking day after day about everything the president says day to day," said Romney, who referred to Trump as a "fraud" and a "phony" before the 2016 election.
Romney said after the debate that he occasionally talks to Trump on the phone and that the president endorsed his candidacy. He said Trump asked him, "Are we good together?"
"Yup, we sure are," Romney said he replied.
Wilson took issue with Romney calling himself a "deficit hawk" when he supported the Republican tax cut — she calls it a corporate giveaway — that adds $2 trillion to the national debt.
"I just don't think that that's genuine," she said.
Romney said there were things about the tax cut that he liked and didn't like. He said he didn't like that higher income people received reductions.
"Rich people don't need a tax break," he said.
On a question about guns, Romney said he opposes any new federal gun regulations and those decisions should be made at the state level.
Wilson said Romney in 2004 called for a federal ban on assault weapons, but has changed his mind between serving as governor and Massachusetts and running for president.
"I guess we're going to play multiple choice Mitt," she said.
Romney said his position didn't change over two presidential elections and he continues to oppose any federal gun legislation.
Wilson and Romney agreed that separating illegal immigrant families at the border is wrong, but disagreed on how to deal with estimated 1.8 million DACA “Dreamers,” including 10,500 in Utah.
Romney called family separation “inexcusable” and a “dark chapter” in history. He favors stronger border security and an e-verify system for employers. Dreamers, he said, should be allowed to stay in the country with legal status, but “get in line” with others to seek citizenship.
Wilson said separating families at the border is “heartbreaking.” She said Congress needs to come together on “comprehensive, compassionate, family-centered” immigration reform. There also must be solutions to bring people out of the shadows, she said.
Dreamers, she said, should have a path to citizenship and “it isn’t OK” to have them stand in line.
Both candidates lamented the judicial confirmation process the Senate followed before confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court over the weekend. Wilson called it “heartbreaking,” while Romney described it as “simply a mess.”
“I think both parties can be blamed for some of the abuse associated with this process,” he said.
Romney said there should be a deadline for bringing complaints and accusations forward and some hearings should be held in private. Wilson said the Senate needs to come up with different rules and should have full and not rushed FBI investigations.
The debate came a day before Romney's first television ad for the general election is slated to run. Wilson said Tuesday she doesn't know if she will go on TV and her campaign is on Utahns' doorsteps.
Constitution Party candidate Tim Aalders complained about the debate commission excluding candidates who did not qualify under its polling threshold.
"You cannot take a poll about who is winning the beauty contest before voters have even had a chance to learn there are more than two contestants, and then tell voters that only two contestants are worth looking at in their sham pageant," he said.