Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and his Republican opponent, former football star Herschel Walker, faced off on Friday night for their first and likely only debate, using the face-to-face meeting to make their cases to voters just a few weeks before Election Day.
The debate came amid a hectic final push by the two candidates to win over the moderate and swing voters who could very well decide which party will control the Senate. While most polls show Warnock with a narrow lead over Walker, neither candidate is scoring the majority support needed to win the Senate seat outright.
Here are five takeaways from the debate between Warnock and Walker.
‘Walker tries to bring Biden on stage’
Biden wasn’t on the stage Friday night, but Walker tried repeatedly to convince viewers that the Democratic President was ostensibly there with his Democratic opponent.
From the outset of the event, Walker repeatedly invoked Biden, hoping to tie his Democratic opponent to the President’s low approval ratings.
“This race isn’t about me. It is about what Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have done to you and your family,” Walker said at the top of the debate.
Later, when pressed on voter fraud in the 2020 election, he added, “Did President Biden win? President Biden won, and Sen. Warnock won. That’s the reason I decided to run.”
He then synthesized his point: “I am running because he and Joe Biden are the same.”
Warnock did little to distance himself from Biden, even at times touting the legislation he passed with the President’s help. But during a question on foreign policy, he took the chance to note a specific time he stood up to the Biden administration.
“I am glad we are standing up to Putin’s aggression and we have to continue to stand up, which is why I stood up to the Biden administration when it suggested we should close the Savanah Combat Readiness Training Center,” Warnock said. “I told the President that was the exact wrong thing to do at the exact wrong time. … We kept that training center open.”
Walker went back to his message in response: “He didn’t stand up. He had laid down every time it came around.”
“It is evident,” said a somewhat exasperated Warnock, “that he has a point that he tried to make time and time again.”
‘Walker allegations fade into the background’
Walker’s campaign has found itself mired in controversy repeatedly over the past year. One of the most explosive instances came last week, when The Daily Beast reported that Walker had paid for his now-ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009.
That allegation — which Walker has vehemently denied — flew in the face of his ardently anti-abortion campaign stance. Walker has said that he would support a national ban on the procedure without any exceptions.
But that allegation received little attention on Friday night, allowing Walker to go relatively unscathed on a matter that Democrats see as a potentially fatal weakness for him.
Asked about the abortion allegation during the debate, Walker said that he has been transparent about his personal life, but once again denied the account.
“I say that was a lie,” he said. “And I’m not backing down.”
And the debate didn’t linger on the topic. Instead, it gave way to a conversation about abortion rights that pivoted more on policy and ethics than on Walker’s own alleged behavior. Warnock, for his part, demurred in attacking his opponent over the allegations as well.
‘Abortion was a flash point’
The candidates also clashed on abortion rights more generally, with Walker insisting he did not support a federal ban, in contrast to past statements, and pointing to the state’s restrictive “heartbeat” law. The law prohibits abortions as soon as early cardiac activity is detectable, which can be as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
“On abortion, I’m a Christian. I believe in life. Georgia is a state that respects life,” Walker said.
The Georgia law makes exceptions for cases of rape or incest, pending a timely police report, and in some cases where the pregnant person’s health is at risk.
Before the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, state law had allowed abortions up to 20 weeks.
Warnock, who supports abortion rights, repeated an argument he’s made on the trail: “A patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped for a woman, her doctor and the US government. … I trust women more than I trust politicians.”
Walker then shot back, invoking Warnock’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
“He told me Black lives matter… If Black lives matter, why are you not protecting those babies? And instead of aborting those babies, why aren’t you baptizing those babies?,” Walker said.
Warnock, as he did throughout the debate, didn’t directly answer Walker’s provocation. Instead, he repeated his position.
“There are enough politicians piling into the rooms of patients,” the senator said, “and I don’t plan to join them.”
‘That is a lie’
Headed into the debate, the focus was on how Walker — and arguably less predictably, Warnock — would address the accusations that the Republican candidate allegedly paid for a woman to terminate her pregnancy and then, two years later, encouraged the same woman to have the procedure a second time.
Walker did what he has done repeatedly as the allegations roiled an already contentious Senate race: Label the allegations a lie.
“As I said, that is a lie,” Walker said in response to a question from the moderator. “I put it in a book, one thing about my life, I have been very transparent. Not like the senator, he has hid things.”
Walker added: “I said that is a lie and I am not backing down. And we have Sen. Warnock, people that would do anything and say anything for this seat. But I am not going to back down.”
CNN has not independently verified the allegations about Walker.
Warnock, as he has done previously, did not address the allegations, instead choosing to let Walker fight them off without pushing them himself.
Instead, the senator took a broad approach, focusing on Walker’s “problem with the truth” and less on the specific allegations.
‘You have a prop’
The debate within the debate over Warnock’s support for police, in which the senator pointed to his support for legislation that backed smaller departments, was briefly derailed when Walker pulled out what appeared to be a police badge.
The moderator quickly admonished Walker, reminding him that props were not allowed onstage.
“You have a prop,” the surprised moderator said. “That is not allowed, sir.”
Moments earlier, Warnock — in response to Walker’s claims that he has “called (police officers) names” and caused “morale” to plummet — said that his opponent “has a problem with the truth.”
Warnock then hit Walker with a callback to a more than two-decade-old police report in which the Republican discussed exchanging gunfire with police and a subsequent false claim from Walker that he previously served in law enforcement.
“One thing that I haven’t done is I haven’t pretended to be a police officer and I’ve never, ever threatened a shootout with police,” he said.
Warnock also argued that his support for greater scrutiny of police didn’t undermine his support for law enforcement.
“You can support police officers, as I’ve done, through the COPS program, through the invest-to-protect program, while at the same time, holding police officers, like all professions, accountable,” he said.
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