SAVANNAH, Ga. — The previous football great Herschel Walker, battling from behind in his challenge to Senator Raphael Warnock, tried to show the campaign’s narrative on its head during a debate on Friday night, aiming to quiet doubts about his own fitness for office by looking for to query Mr. Warnock’s.
Mr. Walker, a Republican, sought to color his Democratic rival because the untrustworthy candidate within the race, demanding loudly, “Don’t bear false witness.” Mr. Warnock hit back by declaring at one point that “my children know I’m with them and for them” — a removed from subtle reminder to Georgians about Mr. Walker’s turbulent personal life and accusations that he’s an absentee father to at the least one in every of his children.
The primary and possibly only debate of the critical Senate race in Georgia, just three days before early voting begins within the state, was contentious and sometimes messy, pitting a political novice, Mr. Walker, against the incumbent Democrat, Mr. Warnock, a seasoned public speaker who delivers sermons nearly every Sunday on the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Mr. Warnock, with a narrow and tenuous lead within the polls, was controlled and cautious, occurring the attack only a couple of times and avoiding directly answering questions when doing so could alienate the moderate Republicans he has courted. Mr. Walker was aggressive and chronic, at times mocking his opponent’s dodges, often interrupting him and consistently going over his closing dates, earning admonishments from the moderators.
Mr. Walker’s posture reflected his need for a powerful performance after weeks of negative headlines, most prominently a former girlfriend’s statements that he paid for one abortion and urged her to finish a second pregnancy, although Mr. Walker is campaigning on his opposition to abortion.
Despite his troubles, the national Republican Party has stood by its candidate, sending in skilled campaign reinforcements and debate coaching — and people moves appear to have paid off.
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With the primaries over, each parties are shifting their focus to the overall election on Nov. 8.
After campaigning far to the suitable, Mr. Walker reversed field on Friday, backtracking on some core elements of his platform. He had said for months that he desired to end abortion without exceptions. On Friday, he said he supported the exceptions that Georgia’s Legislature included in its six-week abortion ban, for girls whose pregnancies are considered futile or for medical emergencies and cases of rape or incest.
In December 2020, Mr. Walker said: “I can guarantee you, Joe Biden didn’t get 50 million people voting for him. But yet people think that he’s won this election.” On Friday night, he said Mr. Biden had won the election.
Mr. Warnock declined to say whether he thought Mr. Biden should run for re-election, saying: “You’re asking me who’s going to run in ’24? The people of Georgia get to determine who’s going to be their senator in three days.” He also embraced lots of the policies the president has pushed, like student loan forgiveness.
At times, Mr. Walker tripped up on his language and policy details, including when he said he wanted Georgians to maneuver away from government health care to the type of insurance Mr. Warnock has — which is government-subsidized health care.
At one point, Mr. Walker also seemed accountable individuals with diabetes for his or her condition, saying during a discussion on insulin costs that while he believed in reducing the worth of the drug, “at the identical time, you bought to eat right,” adding that “unless you’re eating right, insulin is doing you no good.”
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But overall, Mr. Walker held his own after he and his campaign had assiduously tried to lower expectations ahead of the talk. A month beforehand, the candidate half-jokingly told reporters that he was “a rustic boy” and “not that smart.” Mr. Warnock, he said, was “going to indicate up and embarrass me.”
That didn’t occur, but Mr. Walker’s biggest task was to quell doubts about his qualifications for the office.
It’s unclear if he succeeded. He continued his outright denial of the abortion claims by his former girlfriend. “I said that was a lie, and I’m not backing down,” he said.
In perhaps Mr. Warnock’s most combative move, he pivoted from a matter about “defunding police” to Mr. Walker’s history of violent altercations and exaggerations of his résumé, including a claim that he had been in law enforcement.
“I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police,” Mr. Warnock said, prompting Mr. Walker to appear to prove his opponent’s point — and run afoul of the talk moderators — by pulling what gave the impression to be a badge out of his pocket, a violation of the talk’s prohibition on props.
Needing to land some blows, Mr. Walker sought to tar Mr. Warnock as a prevaricator, a line of attack that stemmed from newspaper articles a few report that Ebenezer Baptist Church had tried to evict some residents from an apartment constructing it owns.
Mr. Warnock said the church had evicted nobody, even saying that his opponent had sullied the pulpit from which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. But that only prompted Mr. Walker to suggest he was lying.
Mr. Warnock retorted, “My opponent has an issue with the reality.”
Absent from the talk was a sustained give attention to Mr. Walker’s baggage, which incorporates allegations of domestic violence, his out-of-wedlock children, and altercations with the police. The moderators of the one-hour debate, hosted in Savannah by Nexstar Media, regularly cut off exchanges about personalities and pasts in hopes of specializing in the problems — but that approach appeared to favor Mr. Walker.
When Mr. Walker’s personal problems got here up in glancing references, he repeated his past statements that he struggled with mental illness and has since received successful treatment. He also tried to say Mr. Warnock was stigmatizing mental illness by questioning his past.
Mr. Walker said he was not being treated for dissociative identity disorder, the mental illness he has blamed for violence in his past.
“I’m able to serve,” he said.
He tried to underscore that time by drawing a contrast with Mr. Warnock, who he said repeatedly had voted consistent with Mr. Biden “96 percent of the time.”
“It is obvious that he has a degree that he tried to make time and time again,” a more agitated Mr. Warnock responded in the previous few minutes of the talk.
The 2 candidates had engaged in months of back-and-forth over whether, where and after they would debate, before finally agreeing to Friday’s event.
Leading as much as the talk, Mr. Warnock had tried to run a campaign heavy on policy to avoid direct confrontations along with his opponent. But on his behalf, Democrats flooded the airwaves with hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative promoting against Mr. Walker, underlining allegations of domestic violence brought forth by his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, and his son Christian Walker.
On Friday, Mr. Walker acknowledged that some voters may need worries about his candidacy, looking directly into the camera and making a direct appeal to those “who’re concerned about voting for me, a non-politician.”