Courtesy of WisconsinEye

Republican U.S. Senate candidate frontrunners Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson backed President Trump and touted their conservative credentials in a televised debate tonight ahead of next month’s primary.

But Vukmir lamented the controversial border policy. “We shouldn’t be separating children from their parents,’’ she said.

The debate came just a couple hours after a new NBC News/Marist College Poll showed Nicholson led Vukmir along likely voters 38 to 35 percent, within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. The primary is Aug. 14.

During the debate, the pair were prompted by moderators multiple times over whether they disagree with any policies or statements from Trump. But Vukmir, a state senator from Brookfield, and Nicholson, a former Marine and business consultant, chose to tout what they saw as the president’s accomplishments.

Vukmir applauded Trump over his deregulation efforts and conservative nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, while Nicholson highlighted the president’s signing of the GOP tax overhaul plan, his talks with North Korea and more.

While both avoided negative comments on the president’s policies, Vukmir said if there came a point where she sees a “discrepancy between what is happening in the state of Wisconsin and what the president is doing, I will speak out.”

Nicholson, meanwhile, brought up Trump’s news conference in Helsinki with Russia President Putin, but noted while others had pushed back on Trump’s comments, “what I saw is the president open a line of communication with a foreign leader.”  

Asked whether the Trump administration’s trade policies would cause permanent damage to Wisconsin business owners and families, both Nicholson and Vukmir said no.

The two also touted yesterday’s announcement of an apparent easing in tensions between the U.S. and European Union.

“I do believe President Trump is known for being a negotiator, and what we have seen so far, and what he is doing, it’s making a difference,” Vukmir said.

And Nicholson said of Trump’s strategy: “What the president is doing, saying to our trade partners, ‘Come back to the negotiating table and let’s actually get to a world without tariffs,’ (it’s) clear as day that is what’s happening here.”

The two candidates stood behind podiums on a stage at UW-Milwaukee in the debate hosted by a media coalition that included WTMJ-TV, WUWM-FM, WGBA-TV,, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the USA Today Network. WTMJ news anchors Charles Benson and Shannon Sims, along with WUWM’s Mitch Teich, all posed questions to the candidates. The three minor candidates joined the 90-minute debate in the last half hour.

Nicholson and Vukmir also played up their conservative backgrounds, with Vukmir pointing to her “proven” record and harkening back to her support of Gov. Scott Walker’s policies during the protests surrounding Act 10.

Nicholson, former president of the College Democrats of America in 2000, stressed conservativism to him is a way of life and he’ll “continue to live it in the U.S. Senate as we drive solutions our country needs.” And he later noted members of his family have “turned on him” over his political beliefs.

Nicholson’s parents and brother have all donated the maximum amount to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison.

Asked about Baldwin’s “Buy America” legislation, which Trump supports, Nicholson said while Baldwin put her name on the bill, she stood against Trump on the tax overhaul and regulatory reform, which are things he said will let the economy grow.

“What we need are senators that further understand you can’t be doing this for show, you’ve got to do it for real,” Nicholson said.

Vukmir said she needs to see specifics, but would have to evaluate the impact on American businesses, as some may not have the ability to meet requirements of such legislation.

Nicholson and Vukmir were given the opportunity to ask a question of each other.

Vukmir noted Nicholson’s criticism of political insiders and asked if he felt Walker was an insider or part of the political class and whether he should be running for governor.

Nicholson praised Walker, but said he is not running for Senate.

“We need people running for United States Senate who have lived a life outside the lines and who understand the problems in Washington are outside the lines,” he said.  

Nicholson asked Vukmir what steps she’d like to see the U.S. take in Syria.

Vukmir, whose son is a 1st lieutenant in the Army, says she is concerned about the issue as her son could be deployed there.

Vukmir said any safe havens for terrorists that threaten the nation’s national security need to be rooted out, and once they are, U.S. troops should be withdrawn and regional powers should stabilize the situation.

“We cannot be involved in infinite wars,” she said.

The two were also given the opportunity to comment on the opponent’s campaign.

Nicholson quipped that he was impressed by Vukmir’s determination in reminding voters about his past as a Democrat. But he went on to praise her for her love of her family.

“When I hear her speak about her son, I can tell it comes from the heart,” he said. “And I understand that her love of him and his service is real, and I completely respect that.”

Vukmir said she was impressed by Nicholson’s ability to reach people and his service to the country.

“It’s really important that we have strong leaders, people who put their lives on the line for us,” she said. “You’ve done that, and you’re carrying that through in your campaign.”

George Lucia, of De Pere, said as a 75-year-old retiree who spent 56 years in the private sector, upon ending his career he “decided that maybe I should find something to do and decided to become a United States senator.”

Lucia — a veteran who has a background in manufacturing, sales and other areas — also noted he’s been married “more than once, like our president,” is currently single and has been a backer of Trump since his candidacy was announced.  

Charles Barman, who worked in construction and owns a farm, stressed his work collecting signatures to stop a $1 billion train project from Illinois to Indiana. He also talked about his efforts as an Indiana congressional candidate to fight Chicago’s dumping of water into the Illinois river that he blamed for flooding in northern Indiana and Wisconsin.

Griffin Jones, a corporate treasury analyst at CUNA Mutual Group, said the totality of his experience makes him qualified to serve.

He highlighted his work in the insurance industry and noted his connections with people in both urban and rural Wisconsin.

“And that’s a really important thing in a race here where you’re trying to represent a state that’s as large and diverse as Wisconsin, and obviously, we know the rural and city divides,” he said.

Asked if they would agree to back whichever Republican wins the Aug. 14 U.S. Senate primary, Jones and Lucia both said yes while Benson said no.  

Meanwhile, state Dem Party spokesman Brad Bainum knocked the GOP candidates, saying the contrast between them and Baldwin “couldn’t be any more clear after tonight.”

“While Tammy Baldwin does right by Wisconsin—whether it’s standing up to the president of her own party or working with the president of the opposing party—Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson would be rubber stamps for Donald Trump’s agenda and work for the corporate special interests and billionaires bankrolling their campaigns,” he said in a statement.

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