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The Republican Senate primary is heating up as candidates tout pro-Trump cred

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ohio's Republican Senate primary is shaping up as a fight between candidates touting their pro-Donald Trump credentials. In recent days, the race for the open seat has gained in both intensity and animosity. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Watch the local news or March Madness basketball in Ohio these days, and you're also going to get lots of TV ads with U.S. Senate candidates and one other recurring character, Donald J. Trump. He's everywhere, even as he's endorsed no one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Pro-God, pro-gun, pro-Trump.

GONYEA: That's from former state treasurer Josh Mandel, this one from former state GOP chair Jane Timken.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There are pretenders in the Senate race. Jane Timken is the real Trump conservative.

GONYEA: And from investment banker Mike Gibbons, who has outspent his opponents on ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Trump and Gibbons are businessmen with a backbone. Trump saved our economy before. Gibbons knows how to do it again.

GONYEA: The primary campaign right now is in the middle of a 10-day stretch with three debates. Friday was the first in suburban Columbus. Five candidates sat side by side on stage. Timken made her opening pitch.

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JANE TIMKEN: As most parents know, when something threatens your children, you fight. And I'm a mom on a mission, ready to take our country back.

GONYEA: Josh Mandel used his opening remarks to liken himself to Trump as tough on China. He was teeing up an attack on the candidate to his right, businessman Mike Gibbons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH MANDEL: And people like Mike Gibbons, who had all these companies here in America and then made money selling them to China.

GONYEA: Mandel chose his target for one reason. Latest polls put Gibbons ahead. The first question of the debate was about Ukraine. All blame President Biden for being weak and giving Putin an opportunity to invade. Most supported military and financial aid of some kind. But candidate J.D. Vance, author of the book "Hillbilly Elegy," stood out from the pack with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J D VANCE: What happened over there is very sad. But, ladies and gentlemen, this cannot be said enough. We have got our own problems.

GONYEA: It was during discussion of Ukraine that Mandel resumed his attack on Gibbons' business history, leading to an angry exchange that bordered on the physical.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE GIBBONS: You've never been in the private sector in your entire life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All right, gentlemen.

GIBBONS: You don't know squat about...

MANDEL: I've worked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Josh...

MANDEL: Two tours in Iraq. Don't tell me I haven't worked.

GONYEA: Mandel, who is 44, jumped up and went nose to nose, chest to chest with the 69-year-old Gibbons. It was both tense and awkward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANDEL: Two tours in Iraq. Don't tell me I haven't worked.

GIBBONS: Back off, buddy, or you're going to...

MANDEL: You back off.

GIBBONS: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Come on. Come on.

GONYEA: The moment went viral. Now to last night and another debate. The moderator opened by asking Mandel and Gibbons about their earlier clash. Neither expressed regrets. The evening proceeded calmly this time. At one point, the five candidates were asked for a show of hands. The topic was the 2020 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Do you think that, for the betterment of the Republican Party, it's time for Donald Trump to stop talking about the 2020 election and move on?

GONYEA: Only one candidate raised his hand, State Senator Matt Dolan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT DOLAN: In Ohio, we have very secure elections. There have been two audits done, and it showed there are no problems.

GONYEA: Dolan is currently in single digits in polls. At the first of these debates, I met Dolan supporter Gordon Phillips, a retired career Air Force veteran. He's a loyal Republican, but January 6 was a turning point for him. He says the party does need to move beyond Trump.

GORDON PHILLIPS: But I'm looking for a man who can - with integrity, who can stand up and speak truth and be responsible, accountable for the decisions he makes.

GONYEA: And were you a Trump voter?

PHILLIPS: I was a Trump voter twice.

GONYEA: Still, Phillips is in a small minority within the GOP. Far more common are voters like Kathy Deal, who works at a local church. She's undecided in the Senate race and wishes Trump would weigh in.

Trump has not given an endorsement yet.

KATHY DEAL: No, he's not. That would definitely seal it for sure.

GONYEA: If he were to endorse...

DEAL: Yes, it would seal it.

GONYEA: For you.

Even with polls showing Mike Gibbons in the lead, more than a third of GOP voters are still undecided. The primary is May 3, but that could be delayed due to a legal battle over redistricting. Whoever gets the Republican nomination will likely be the favorite in November in a state Trump won twice easily. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "GOT ME WRONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.