Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader, questioned Cagle's voting record, including pro-business votes he cast while building a banking and real estate fortune, and cast him as an insider in a state Senate badly in need of "new blood."
Cagle, a state senator from Gainesville, reminded voters of Reed's ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and badgered him over his latest campaign headache: A lawsuit from a Texas Indian tribe that claims Reed engaged in fraud and racketeering to shut down the tribe's casino.
The race for the lieutenant governor's seat, a largely ceremonial post with perks but few powers, has rarely been this heated. Yet Reed's entry into the race has galvanized his conservative base while polarizing others who fear the seat could be Reed's steppingstone to bigger things.
Contributions have poured into both campaigns which raised roughly $2.5 million apiece and recent polls show the two in a dead heat. Endorsements have followed as well, with Reed landing the support of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Cagle earning the nod from former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
In much the same way he's countered criticism over his ties to Abramoff, Reed responded to the lawsuit filed last week by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe by warning voters not to succumb to "guilt by association."
"This is why I'm in favor of tort reform, because of nonsense like this," Reed said. "This lawsuit is utterly without bearing."
"We will see," Cagle shot back. "The truth of the situation with Ralph Reed is it continues to escalate."
Cagle was referring to an investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last month that found that two Indian tribes, which were both Abramoff clients, sent $5.3 million to Reed, sometimes using non-profits as intermediaries, to battle gambling initiatives that would have hurt their business.
Reed has not been charged with a crime and has said repeatedly that he regrets the work he did with Abramoff. He said the two-year Senate probe has vindicated him.
On Sunday, Reed insisted his past efforts to defeat a lottery initiative in Alabama does not extend to the Georgia Lottery, which funds the popular HOPE Scholarship.
"I believe this is a settled issue," he said. "People voted on it."
Cagle said he was unconvinced. "I've never seen someone dance around the issues so much. He's all over the board on the issue," he said. "It all depends on who's paying the bill relative to the principles he's standing up for."
The exchange is a taste of the acrimony that has marked the campaigns in recent weeks. Rounds of attack ads between the two campaigns have escalated and Cagle has openly questioned whether Reed will face criminal charges. That may explain why, after a hurried greeting at the start of the debate, the two found it hard to say anything positive about each other.
"He lives in Gwinnett and is the former Christian Coalition executive director and ran the party. We appreciate his good service," Cagle said, before quickly adding he was "disappointed with his activities after leaving the Christian Coalition."
Reed responded with a similar curtness. "I've said consistently I honor Casey's service in the Senate," he said. Seconds later, he changed his tune, calling one of Cagle's campaign ads erroneous.
The primary victor will face the winner in a crowded field of Democratic candidates, which includes former Department of Human Resources Commissioner Jim Martin, former state Sen. Greg Hecht and state Sen. Steen Miles.
At points during the Democratic debate, Hecht and Martin sparred over a negative campaign mailer and both proclaimed they were the only candidates who could prevail in November.
"We have the tenacity together to beat Ralph Reed," Hecht said.
Miles, meanwhile, tried to offer herself as an alternative to campaign bickering. "I know you're tired of politics of usual, the gutter-sniping and name calling," she said. "I offer a viable alternative."