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    US Senate hopefuls use Trump to draw debate distinctions

    Geoff Diehl, Beth Lindstrom, and John Kingston.
    Associated Press
    Geoff Diehl, Beth Lindstrom, and John Kingston.

    The three Republicans vying to face US Senator Elizabeth Warren this fall sidled into a radio studio Tuesday for their first debate ahead of the Sept. 4 primary. A fourth seat could have easily been saved for President Trump.

    Geoff Diehl, Beth Lindstrom, and John Kingston each fashioned their appeal to Republican voters through their varying stances on Trump during the hourlong event.

    The tactic drew the sharpest lines between Lindstrom, the longtime party activist, and Diehl, the Whitman state representative and former state cochair of Trump’s campaign, whom Lindstrom derided as a “blind loyalist” who would get toppled by Warren in November. Diehl argued that his close ties to Trump would give him a “leg up” in a currently Republican-controlled Washington.

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    Lindstrom said Warren “cannot wait to run against Donald Trump.” And she argued she has the most widespread appeal, including to independent voters.

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    “With Geoff and the blind loyalty to Donald Trump . . . he cannot win against her,” she said.

    The line set up an intense back-and-forth, with all three candidates in the Boston Herald Radio debate engaging in a game of one-upmanship about who was the most “outsider” candidate to take down Warren. After Lindstrom accused Diehl of simply looking for the “next rung on the political ladder,” he charged that Lindstrom helped oversee millions in fee hikes when she served as the state’s chief of consumer affairs and business regulation in the Mitt Romney administration.

    Lindstrom shot back, arguing that even with the hikes, many fees remained among the lowest in the country. It was then that moderator Joe Battenfeld said the time was up.

    “Just when it was getting interesting,” joked Kingston, a first-time candidate from Winchester who framed himself as the “outsider businessman.”

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    The shadow of Trump has long hung over the race, thanks largely to Warren and the continued speculation she could run against him for president in 2020. But conservatives energized by Trump’s White House victory have latched onto the campaign as a potential avenue to assert their presence and put a ding in the Cambridge Democrat this fall.

    During the debate on Tuesday, it was Trump who often provided the common ground on which the three candidates could meet. Diehl and Lindstrom said they’d vote for him in 2020; Kingston would not commit.

    All three backed Trump’s call for a larger border wall. They each veered from criticizing the since-reversed White House policy of separating children from their parents at the border. And they each said they wouldn’t apply a “litmus test” when voting for a Supreme Court justice.

    They all also criticized calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which Warren said should be replaced with an agency that “reflects our morality.”

    Pressed on whether they’d support impeaching Trump — presumably if Trump is accused by special counsel Robert Mueller of conspiring with Russia in the 2016 presidential election — Lindstrom indicated it was too early to say, given that the probe is ongoing.

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    Kingston criticized the calls for impeachment as a “trial balloon” some Democrats were floating ahead of the midterm elections.

    Diehl went further than both. He echoed Trump’s criticism of the FBI and Department of Justice, arguing they were “trying to create a crisis that didn’t exist.”

    “All of this has been a witch hunt,” Diehl said, borrowing Trump’s favorite phrase for the Mueller investigation. “I know that’s his term, but it really has been something that’s been used to distract from the president being able to do the job that he’s been doing for the last year and a half.”

    And while Lindstrom and Kingston declined to say if Trump has been too soft on Russia since it was accused of meddling in the 2016 election, Diehl used the question to pivot to Warren.

    “Russia is not the old Soviet Union,” Diehl said. “To me, the bigger threat is someone like Elizabeth Warren.”

    The line drew soft push-back from Kingston for equating Warren with a “foreign adversary.” Diehl later said he was being “facetious” and noted that Russia is a “threat, obviously.”

    But it appeared to feed into the perception of Diehl as the race’s Trump candidate, even as all three were generally united in painting Warren as being most interested in a potential presidential run in two years.

    Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.