ATLANTA (CN) — Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock met his Republican challenger, first-time candidate and former football star Herschel Walker, Friday evening for the first and only debate in one of the most anticipated face-offs of the midterm elections.
The hour-long debate, held at the JW Marriott at Plant Riverside Savannah, focused on issues including inflation, student loan debt forgiveness and abortion. Both candidates were also asked to confront the scandals that have come to dominate much of the public conversation around the race.
Last week, a former girlfriend publicly accused Walker of paying for an abortion in 2009 and encouraging her to have another. The staunchly pro-life candidate denied the allegation. On Friday, Walker appeared to reverse his previous support for an outright national ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
On the debate stage, Walker insisted that his position was in alignment with Georgia’s state abortion law, which bans the procedure at six weeks — before most women even know they are pregnant.
“One thing about my life is I’ve been very transparent,” the Republican said. “On abortion, I’m a Christian. I believe in life. Georgia is a state that respects life and I’ll be a senator who protects life.”
Asked whether there should be limitations on abortion set by the government, Warnock said he believed “a patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government.”
The strangest event of the evening came when the candidates were asked what should be done to resolve the issue of gun violence in the United States.
After saying he would not support any legislation that might affect Georgians’ Second Amendment rights, Walker accused Warnock of “calling [police] names” and empowering “criminals to think they’re better than the police.”
Walker then appeared to pull a prop police badge out of his jacket and point to it after Warnock accused him of lying about serving in law enforcement.
“One thing that I have never done is I haven’t pretended to be a police officer and I’ve never, ever threatened a shoot-out with police,” Warnock said.
The Democrat was referring to a 2001 police report in which Walker talked about “having a shoot-out with police.”
Walker put the badge away after a moderator demanded he do so and follow the debate rules.
The Republican candidate also did not respond to a question about allegations of domestic violence against him, instead pivoting to say he is a “champion for mental health” who has been “transparent” about past mental health struggles.
Confronted with a video clip of him speaking about his Dissociative Identity Disorder diagnosis, Walker said he is not currently being treated for the mental illness.
“You don’t have to have treatment for it,” he said. “And I encourage people to continue to talk to people. I talked to my pastors and continue to get help if I need help, but I don’t need any help. I’m doing well.”
Asked whether Georgia voters can be sure he’s capable of serving, Walker said yes.
“I’m ready to lead today,” Walker said. “I’m ready to vote with the Georgia voters where Senator Warnock has voted with Joe Biden 96% of the time. I’m ready to vote with the Georgia voters today.”
Walker made statements throughout the debate tying Warnock to Biden, focusing many of his responses throughout the hour on Warnock’s voting record.
“I’m running against him and Joe Biden because they’re the same,” Walker said at one point to loud applause from the live audience.
The Republican said he blamed the Biden administration and Warnock for rising inflation, prompting the senator to tout his role in passing the Inflation Reduction Act.
Walker again pointed out the closeness between Warnock and the president during a line of questioning concerning student loan debt forgiveness.
Warnock said he “pushed” the president to “do student debt relief” and urged him to forgive $20,000 for some people who received Pell Grants.
“I think that was the right move. We need reform. We shouldn’t be doing this again 10 years from now,” Warnock said. “College is outpacing everything else in our economy.”
Walker countered by arguing that the decision to execute debt forgiveness via an executive order was “unfair,” instead suggesting that Congress should get rid of federal funding for any college that raises its costs.
“How can you transfer someone’s debt who owes it to someone who doesn’t owe it?” Walker said. “I didn’t cosign for anyone’s loan.”
Questions about potential personal wrongdoing were not limited to Walker. Asked about lawsuits accusing the Atlanta church where he serves as pastor of unfairly evicting tenants of a church-owned property, Warnock denied the allegations, saying, “It’s very obvious my opponent and his allies are trying to sully Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Warnock did not directly respond to questioning about a child custody lawsuit filed by his ex-wife, instead stressing his closeness with his children. “My children know I am with them and for them,” he said.
Recent polls show the two rivals locked in a neck-and-neck race, making the possibility of a December runoff likely if neither candidate secures 50%-plus-one vote to win outright.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Collaborative poll released Wednesday of 1,030 likely voters showed Warnock at 46% and Walker at 43% with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The survey, which was conducted by the University of Georgia, also found Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver polling at 4% while 6% remained undecided.
Oliver was not invited to participate in Friday's debate.
Early voting begins in Georgia on Monday, three weeks ahead of election day on Nov. 8.
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