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‘Back off, buddy’: Two candidates get in each other’s faces during Ohio GOP Senate debate

By Eva McKend and Andrea Cambron, CNN

Two candidates in the pivotal Republican Senate primary in Ohio got in each other’s faces Friday night in a heated exchange during a debate.

Tempers flared onstage after former state Treasurer Josh Mandel accused investment banker Mike Gibbons of “making billions” by moving Ohio businesses to China and owning stock in Chinese oil.

Gibbons denied the claims, saying he “personally didn’t buy the stock” and telling Mandel he “may not understand this” because “you’ve never been in the private sector in your entire life.”

Mandel then rose out of his seat, and the two men began talking over each other in raised voices. Mandel, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve, told Gibbons, “Two tours in Iraq, don’t tell me I haven’t worked.”

“You don’t know squat,” Gibbons responded. “Back off, buddy.”

“You back off,” Mandel fired back. “You watch what happens.”

Moderator and conservative radio host Brandon Boxer stepped in to break the two men up.

The eruption represents the latest episode in what has become a bitter GOP primary in Ohio to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Mandel and Gibbons, along with author J.D. Vance and former state GOP chair Jane Timken, have aligned themselves with former President Donald Trump, who has not yet endorsed a candidate and is unsure about whether he should. Both Vance and Timken, along with state Sen. Matt Dolan, participated in Friday night’s candidate forum in Gahanna, Ohio, hosted by right-leaning advocacy group FreedomWorks.

The barbs between Gibbons and Mandel continued offstage through their campaigns.

“Josh Mandel is unhinged, unfit and flailing — because he’s losing,” Gibbons campaign spokesperson Samantha Cotton said in a statement. “He doesn’t have the temperament, experience, or fortitude to be a U.S. Senator and Ohio voters got a first-hand look at just how unprepared Josh Mandel has become and that will be reflected on the ballot on May 3.”

Scott Guthrie, Mandel’s campaign manager, said in a statement Friday that Gibbons “got upset tonight that he was called out for his investments in Chinese oil.”

“He claims not to remember the investment, but it’s part of a pattern of Gibbons entire career making money by taking American companies and selling them to foreign interests,” Guthrie said.

An exasperated Vance, author of the best-selling book “Hillbilly Elegy” and himself a Marine veteran, blasted the showdown between Gibbons and Mandel as “ridiculous.”

“I think the way you use the US Marine Corps, Josh, is disgraceful. It’s not a political football for you to toss around. Think about what we just saw. This guy wants to be US senator,” Vance said onstage.

The tone of the forum started out in a more civil manner with Dolan, the only candidate in the race who has focused more narrowly on policy than on courting Trump, telling the audience he knew they had to make a difficult choice in the upcoming primary election. “We are asking you to choose between family and friends,” he said, gesturing to his opponents onstage.

Candidates addressed the war in Ukraine, how to deal with China, regulating big tech, and rooting out anti-racism education in public schools.

The Ohio Democratic Party reacted to the GOP debate, saying, “We encourage every voter to watch this forum and see for themselves why these Republicans do not deserve to be in the United States Senate.”

The winner of the Ohio Republican primary would be favored in the November general election in a state Trump won by 8 points in 2020. The primary is set for May 3 but could be pushed later because congressional and state legislative maps are still in dispute.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.

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