One down, one to go: What to watch in Thursday’s 6th District debate

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare for a debate ahead of the June 2o runoff in Georgia’s 6th District race. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare for a debate ahead of the June 2o runoff in Georgia’s 6th District race. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff will meet again Thursday morning for their second and final confirmed showdown ahead of Georgia's 6th District runoff, and both are hoping to energize their supporters while trying to avoid an embarrassing gaffe.

The two rivals in the June 20 contest met at Tuesday’s WSB-TV debate, which was filled with sharp clashes over healthcare policy, the influence of outside money, and other divides in the nationally-watched contest.

The format for Thursday’s debate, held at 9 a.m. at WABE’s Atlanta studios, is likely to encourage lengthier answers from the two rivals. And it also could be the final time voters can hear from both candidates on the same stage: No other debates have been agreed to by both contenders.

Here are a few things to watch in the debate:

‘Livable wages’ 

Democrats called it a cringe-worthy gaffe. Republicans said it emphasized the stark divide in the contest. Either way, one of the most memorable moments of Tuesday’s debate was Handel’s assertion that “I do not support a livable wage.”

It came when both candidates were asked whether they supported raising the minimum wage, and Handel prefaced her comments by saying it’s an “example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative.”

Democrats quickly seized on the remarks, casting them as out-of-touch with the suburban Atlanta district’s leanings. Handel’s expected to be pushed on Thursday to explain the position.

Pelosi and Trump

If anyone picked Nancy Pelosi in a drinking game, they were in for a long night. Handel invoked the House Democratic leader at least 10 times in the debate, and accused Ossoff of having values from “3,000 miles away in San Francisco.”

Ossoff tried to brush them off as partisan broadsides, but he seems certain to face a similar line of attack on Thursday from Republicans who have relentlessly tried to tie him to Pelosi.

The Democrat, meanwhile, can’t easily flip the script on Handel. She’s campaigned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, President Donald Trump and plans a Friday event with Vice President Mike Pence.

But he’s largely steered clear of sharp criticisms of them largely because he’s wary of turning off independents and moderates he’s trying to sway to pull off an upset victory in the conservative-leaning district.

Immigration and climate change

The debate could also explore new angles about the nation’s biggest debates that weren’t addressed in Tuesday’s showdown.

That includes one of the biggest recent splits between the candidates: Handel supported Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords, saying the U.S. withdrawal “presents an opportunity to do the right thing in the right way.”

Ossoff took the opposite approach, warning that  "history will condemn us" for leaving the accord.

Another area that’s ripe for more exploration: Immigration policy.

Ossoff has called for tighter security on the borders, but he has criticized Trump's campaign vow to deport all immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Handel supports Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and an overhaul of a "broken" immigration system.

Playing to the bases

Both candidates are likely to stick to their overall strategy. For Handel, that means playing to her base. For Ossoff, it means staying close enough to the center to appeal to moderates and disaffected Trump voters, while still motivating his more liberal supporters.

We’re likely to hear more from Handel about how Ossoff doesn’t live in the district – he lives just south of its borders with his fiancée, who is attending medical school at Emory University.

And we can expect a second round of criticism from Ossoff on Handel’s time at the Susan Komen Foundation, where she served as a vice president of public policy during a controversial decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood.

Riding the cash wave

The debate takes place the day of the campaign finance deadline, and both candidates are set to report huge cash hauls.

The timing could also trigger another round of questions about the influence of out-of-state money in the campaign, which has now cost more than $40 million.

Most of the money from both parties has come from out-of-state donors, though in very different ways. Ossoff’s campaign has raised the brunt of his donations from frustrated Trump opponents outside of Georgia; he’s quick to say they are small-dollar donations from grassroots supporters.

Handel has raised a fraction of Ossoff’s cash haul, but she’s benefited from more than $9 million in reinforcements from GOP groups, including super PACs that receive much of their money from outside sources.


How to watch the debate:

The second debate between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff will be held at WABE’s Atlanta studios at 9 a.m. Thursday.

It will be broadcast live on WABE 90.1 and stream live at WABE.org and on the WABE app. And it will be televised on PBA30 that evening at 7 p.m.

For more on the Sixth District race, go to myAJC.com/politics — your most complete and credible source for news and views about what is really going on in Georgia politics.