OPINION: The debate Herschel Walker needed

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker participate in the Nexstar Georgia Senate Debate at District Live at Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., on Friday, October 14, 2022.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

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Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker participate in the Nexstar Georgia Senate Debate at District Live at Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., on Friday, October 14, 2022.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Herschel Walker went into Friday night’s debate against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock with one job — to convince the Republicans still undecided about him that he is capable of the basics of the job of being a U.S. senator.

Despite the fact that he’s a professional motivational speaker, the former football star had spent much of this campaign sequestered away from big stages and hard questions. He refused to debate his GOP primary opponents, while his campaign team kept him behind closed-door events at first, and then mostly in front of friendly audiences and true believers.

Walker made national headlines in those early months with comments so incoherent they were fodder for the nightly news, Saturday Night Live, or both. “Bad air” and “why are they still apes” were just a few of the word jumbles that were the only view most Georgia voters had of Walker up to this point, along with the scandalous personal headlines that have followed.

But on Friday night, the Herschel Walker who showed up to debate Warnock was prepared, direct, aggressive at times, and, most important, clear. Despite the fact that it was the first debate of his career, Walker made his case that a vote for Warnock is a vote for President Joe Biden. He answered most of the questions asked, and left voters with an understanding of where he stands on issues from abortion to inflation to transgender sports. Whether they’ll agree with him is another question, but they know, at least, where he stands.

He also pushed the senator when he seemed to least expect it. As Warnock spoke of a patient’s room being too crowded for a patient, her doctor and the government when deciding about abortion, a frequent line Warnock uses at campaign events, Walker interrupted, ”Did he not mention that there was a baby in that room as well?”

After Warnock pointed out the PPP loans that Walker’s chicken business took out during the COVID pandemic, Walker noted that Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock is senior pastor, had received PPP loans as well.

While Walker’s job was to win over Republican stragglers, Warnock’s job was trickier — to not lose altitude in the race that he’s been leading for nearly the entire cycle, with votes from Democrats, independents, and even a few Republicans.

Likely looking not to lose voters with his answers, Warnock just didn’t answer some questions at all, even on issues where voters would naturally be looking for specifics.

What limits to abortion, if any, would he support? Should the Supreme Court expand and add justices to rebalance the ideological split? Should Joe Biden run for president again in 2024?

The last question in particular seems about as easy as it gets. Biden is the Democratic president who won Georgia and kicked former President Donald Trump out of office less than two years ago. Should he run again? The danger for Warnock is that at some point a lack of an answer starts to look like a lack of candor.

Walker’s performance wasn’t seamless. When Warnock detailed his own bill to cap the price of insulin, Walker seemed to blame people with diabetes for having the disease in the first place.

He also glossed over questions about his mental health and changed his position on abortion without explanation, standing behind Georgia’s six-week abortion ban after saying for months that he wants a full abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest.

The strongest moment of the debate for Warnock came when he pushed Walker on one of the many ways in which the senator says Walker is not fit for office.

“We will see time and time again that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” Warnock said, bringing up Walker’s claims he has been 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.”

Warnock also made the Democrats’ case on abortion. “Do you want a Senator who wants to control your life? Or do you want a Senator who wants to save your life?”

But Warnock never pushed Walker on the past abuse allegations against him, questions about his businesses, or even his decision to live in Texas, not Georgia, in all of the years after he retired from football. He moved back to Georgia only to run for office last December after 40 years away.

Going into the debate, holdout Republicans openly worried that Walker was simply incapable of handling the basics of the job of being a public official under the glare of the spotlight.

But his performance Friday night, more than holding his own against a skilled orator like Raphael Warnock and in some cases besting him, likely went a long way to answering those Republicans’ concerns, leaving the contest more of a true toss-up than ever.

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