In first debate, Ossoff and Perdue each try to paint rival as yes man or ‘rubber stamp’

Democrat Jon Ossoff, left, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue held the first of three debates in their contest. Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Democrat Jon Ossoff, left, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue held the first of three debates in their contest. Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Deadlocked in the polls, U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff battered each other during the race’s first televised debate Monday over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, angling for an edge in the final stretch of a bitter campaign.

Throughout the hourlong Atlanta Press Club debate, Perdue depicted Ossoff as a liberal stalking horse who would say “anything to hide his radical socialist agenda.” The Democrat swung back, trying to frame Perdue as a relic of a corrupt status quo and a yes man to President Donald Trump.

Though the two rivals bickered over a range of policies, the showdown was bracketed by discussion of the still-raging coronavirus outbreak that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans and sickened millions more. Echoing Joe Biden’s election message, Ossoff accused Perdue of downplaying the disease.

“The health care workers have done their jobs. It’s politicians like Sen. Perdue who have not. And everybody knows it,” Ossoff said. “We need government that is honest and competent, that empowers public health experts in a public health emergency.”

Rather than play the showdown safe, Perdue took on the role of a fiery underdog, peppering his challenger with attacks while repeatedly challenging moderator Donna Lowry on the debate’s rules to gain more speaking time.

The Republican touted his support for the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program economic stimulus measure, which he said saved more than 1 million Georgia jobs, and he highlighted his experience as a former Fortune 500 chief executive.

“All you’d do is be a rubber stamp for Chuck Schumer, who is locking this country down,” Perdue said in one testy exchange, invoking the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate. “It just seems to me that you’ll say anything to hide your radical socialist agenda.”

The sharpest clash took place when Perdue dismissed Ossoff’s critiques of his pandemic response as little more than “Monday morning quarterbacking” and “idle chatter.”

“Senator, I’m astounded. It’s not idle chatter, senator. It’s 220,000 Americans killed by a virus,” said Ossoff, who runs a firm that makes investigative documentaries, adding: “And listen to you — schoolyard insults. Not a shred of empathy. Not a shred of personal responsibility.”

The Republican pivoted by criticizing Ossoff’s firm for selling a documentary to a Hong Kong-based company with ties to China.

“You took money from the Chinese government that originated this virus in the first place,” Perdue said.

Ossoff shot back: “That’s the swamp, folks.”

‘Real world’

The debate — the first of three — coincides with the start of the three-week early voting period that began Monday. The candidates are racing to lock up as many votes as they can as early as they can, and the online showdown will fast become a part of their get-out-the-vote messaging.

The debate, held virtually due to the pandemic, also took place as the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings on Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy.

Ossoff blasted Perdue for trying to “rush through” the appointment before the election, while the Republican scoffed at the Democrat’s vow that he would oppose an effort to increase the size of the court’s bench if Biden wins the White House and Democrats gain control of the Senate.

“He’ll be nothing but a rubber stamp when Chuck Schumer wants to pack that court,” Perdue said.

The race has grown testier as both campaigns and their allies flood the airwaves with more than $110 million worth of ads, many of them scathing attacks over a seat that could help determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Throughout the debate, Perdue declared that Ossoff supports the “defund the police” movement — an assertion that Ossoff has long denied — suggested he was in league with terrorists and falsely claimed the Democrat was endorsed by Communists.

And Ossoff accused Perdue of abusing his power and putting his loyalty to Trump ahead of Georgia, while also mocking his debate skills. Twice, he accused the senator of “reading from your notes that your staff has provided for you.”

Both tried to use Libertarian Shane Hazel, a third-party candidate who is trailing badly in the polls, as a foil to make their points about their rivals. The military veteran joked that the hourlong debate garnered him more attention than his entire campaign, and he called himself a model of “principled consistency.”

“You’re not going to get it through these types of politicians,” said Hazel, a former GOP congressional candidate.

For each of the two main candidates, it was a chance to confront his rival — virtually — with many of the attacks that have bombarded the airwaves.

No matter the question, whether it involved school waivers or Barrett’s appointment, Perdue pivoted to call Ossoff as a “radical socialist agenda” — a variation of a charge Perdue used at least a half-dozen times. Ossoff, meanwhile, raced to paint his opponent as hopelessly disconnected from the “real world where people are suffering."

“This isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans and liberals versus conservatives,” the Democrat said. “It’s about the people of the United States against crooks like you in Washington, too busy enriching yourself in office.”