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Mitt Romney calls Mike Kennedy’s apology to Baptist minister ‘inexplicable’ during Utah GOP debate

GOP candidates for U.S. Senate square off in lone debate before primary

SHARE Mitt Romney calls Mike Kennedy’s apology to Baptist minister ‘inexplicable’ during Utah GOP debate

PROVO — U.S. Senate candidate Mike Kennedy threw a few jabs at Mitt Romney over some of the former GOP presidential nominee's past decisions and statements in a Republican debate Tuesday, but left himself open for a shot to the chin just before the final bell.

Romney described his willingness to find common ground and how he worked with Democrats in Massachusetts to forge occasional compromises in response to a last question about collaboration.

"I'm grateful to hear my opponent say he's willing to work with people because when he's labeling President Trump as a phony and as a fraud, and Pastor Jeffress as a bigot, I don't see those as productive steps in building a relationship," Kennedy said in his rebuttal.

Moderator David Magleby tried to end the hourlong debate there, but Romney, said "No, no, no, no."

Romney said the president respects people who call them as they see them, and Trump has endorsed him in the campaign. He recounted some of the derogatory comments Texas Baptist Minister Robert Jeffress has said about the LDS Church, to which Romney and Kennedy both belong.

"For Rep. Kennedy to call (Jeffress) and to apologize to him is absolutely inexplicable. Jeffress should be apologizing to Rep. Kennedy and the people of Utah of my faith," he said. "When people express bigotry, they ought to be called out for it."

The two candidates looking to replace retiring GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch squared off in the live televised debate at BYU sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.

KBYU will air the debate again Thursday at 1 a.m. and June 21 at 6 p.m., five days before the primary election. The winner faces Democratic Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who watched from the gallery.

A UtahPolicy.com poll last week showed Romney with commanding 67-24 lead over Kennedy.

Kennedy called Jeffress to apologize for Romney calling the pastor a "religious bigot" in a tweet earlier this month. Jeffress described the apology as being on behalf of the state.

Romney had not previously commented publicly about Kennedy's apology.

Though the public backlash was severe, Kennedy said after the debate he holds firmly to his faith but that he also builds bridges and doesn't burn them down. He said the campaign is greater than just that issue.

Kennedy and Romney mostly agreed on things such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, balancing the federal budget and opposing Utah's medical cannabis initiative. But they diverged somewhat on gun issues.

Romney said he opposes new federal legislation on guns and would protect the Second Amendment but favors a ban on the sale of bump stocks — a device that makes semi-automatic weapons fire faster — to the public.

Kennedy said banning bump stocks doesn't work and that wouldn't be a useful step in making schools safer. He said as a state lawmaker he has voted against any bill that would infringe on Second Amendment rights, but Romney signed an assault weapon ban in Massachusetts.

"It's just hard for me to know as our U.S. senator what you'll do regarding this and other issues," Kennedy said.

Romney said the pro-gun lobby and the anti-gun lobby came together on Massachusetts legislation that banned certain weapons and expanded the rights of gun owners. He said he was happy to see them find a solution that worked for that state and that he supported it.

"I've run for president twice," he said. "I'm running for Senate with the same policies I had when I was running for president."

Kennedy also took a shot at Romney over a comment he made about immigration during the 2012 presidential campaign.

"I thought I remembered in the presidential campaign something about self-deportation. But that's fine. I guess that opinion has changed as well," Kennedy said.

Romney said self-deportation was a reference to e-verify, a federal program that allows businesses to determine if employees are eligible to work in the U.S. If employers are punished for hiring illegal workers and people can't get jobs because they're in the country illegally, they would leave on their own, he said.

"Self-deciders," he said, is the best way to enforce immigration laws.

Kennedy said repeatedly during the debate that he stands with Trump, but afterward admitted that he cast a write-in vote for GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016.

He said he wasn't sure who Trump was going to be but now "firmly" backs the president and expects in the next election he would win Utah in a "landslide."

"He's had a lot of converts in this state as a result of the work he has done," Kennedy said.

Romney has said he agrees with Trump's policy agenda so far, but would call him out when he disagrees.