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Eight of the 24 candidates for the U. S. Senate joined a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Louisiana Association of Health Plans, with divisions over Obamacare the chief topic. Shown here are, from left, U. S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, former state lawmaker Troy Hebert, No-Party Jeanerette, state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican and Democrat  Joshua Pellerin of Lafayette. Also on the panel were U. S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, Democrat Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, a member of the Public Service Commission, former U. S. Rep. Joseph Cao, a Republican from Harvey and Democrat  Caroline Fayard, a New Orleans attorney.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

In an early U.S. Senate campaign forum, four Republican contenders blasted Obamacare Wednesday while three Democrats argued the overhaul should be fixed, not dumped.

"Obamacare sucks, it can't be fixed," said state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican. "It should be repealed."

Similar criticism of the law -- officially the Affordable Care Act -- was leveled by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette, U.S. Rep. John Fleming of Minden and former U.S. Rep. Joseph Cao of Harvey, all Republicans.

Democrat Foster Campbell, a member of the Public Service Commission, said the controversial law needs repairs, not to be abolished.

"There are lots of things that need to be fixed," he said.

He added, "There are some good things about Obamacare -- 250,000 people in Louisiana have health care," Campbell said, a reference to the Medicaid expansion launched in Louisiana this year that was part of the measure.

"I don't apologize for that," he said.

Democrats Caroline Fayard, a New Orleans attorney and Joshua Pellerin, a Lafayette oil and gas executive, also argued the law needs changes, not to be repealed.

Troy Hebert, a no-party candidate, criticized the overhaul, and blamed both mainline political parties for Obamacare and a host of other problems in Washington D.C.

"America is in trouble and both parties have blood on their hands," said Hebert, former commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

The 75-minute gathering was sponsored by the Louisiana Association of Heath Plans.

Eight of the 24 candidates on the Nov. 8 election ballot were on hand, with Republican Rob Maness, a retired colonel, absent because of travel issues, according to a spokesman for the group.

The invitations were extended in April and based in part on viability, said John Ford, communications director of the LAHP.

All 24 candidates hope to succeed U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, who announced he would not seek re-election last November, moments after he conceded defeat in his bid for governor.

Unless one of the candidates lands at least 50 percent of the vote, plus one, a runoff will determine the winner in December.

While all the questions focused on health care, Obamacare sparked the most animated comments.

"Obamacare is deeply flawed," Boustany told the group. "I am looking to repeal any way we can do it."

Cao noted that, when he was in the U.S. Congress, he voted against the final version of the ACA  in part because of concerns over its impact on small businesses.

"I would vote to repeal it and if we cannot repeal it we should fix it," he said.

Fayard agreed with the latter.

"I think we have to fix it, absolutely," she said.

But the Democrat said Medicaid expansion -- a state by state option under the law -- has been good for Louisiana.

Fleming charged that the ACA has been partly responsible for dismal national economic growth -- 1.2 percent.

"Obamacare is devastating jobs," he said. 

Pellerin said Obamacare includes positive provisions, including allowing those up to 26 years old to remain on family health care plans and health care coverage for those with pre-existing health problems.

"So I think we need to keep an open mind," he said.

Hebert, a former state lawmaker from Jeanerette, said he is no fan of the ACA.

Boustany said trust should be the key issue when voters pick Louisiana's next U.S. senator.

Campbell told the group he lives on a farm in Bossier Parish, has fought for rank-and-file citizens for 40 years and does not shy away from controversy.

"I don't mind the heat," he said.

Cao said while the Republican Party nationally has been accused of intolerance for immigrants, he believes in the party's ideals of faith, family and personal responsibility.

Fayard called herself something of a fresh face on the political scene, and proud to have already been criticized by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, another U. S. Senate contender not at Wednesday's forum.

Fleming, who operates 38 Subway stores, said he has been "deeply embedded" in the economy like those in the audience.

Hebert said he will not accept campaign donations.

Kennedy said he thinks the best days for the U.S. are ahead.

"But not if we keep doing the same thing we have been doing for the past eight years," he said. "I would rather drink weed killer than support Obamacare."

Pellerin called himself a Democrat who is pro-life and backs the Second Amendment.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.