SAVANNAH –Republican Herschel Walker and Democrat Raphael Warnock clashed over abortion, crime and truthfulness Friday night in their first — and likely only — debate as they battle for a seat that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
The showdown is historic: it is the first time two Black men have run for the Senate from Georgia. And although the candidates have been attacking each other for months from afar, they embraced as they took the stage at the JW Marriott in Savannah. Dozens of reporters from news outlets as far away as Germany were on hand.
As the contest got underway, both men hammered home familiar themes.
Walker repeatedly linked Warnock to President Joe Biden: “He’s for Joe Biden. I’m for Georgia.”
Warnock questioned Walker’s fitness for office: “This race is about who is ready to represent the people of Georgia in the U.S. Senate and I think that choice is clear.”
Not surprisingly, one of the sharpest exchanges of the night came over abortion, which has become a centerpiece in the midterm elections following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year overturning Constitutional protections for the procedure. Walker and Warnock hold opposing views and each played to their base.
Adding fuel to the fire, Walker, a staunch abortion opponent, is facing allegations he paid for an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009.
“Well, as I say, that’s a lie,” Walker responded. “I’m a Christian. I believe in life. And I tell people, this Georgia is a state that respects life and I will be a senator that protects life.”
Walker has previously said he supports banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest or the life of the mother. From the debate stage, he said he supports Georgia’s six-week abortion ban. “I support the Georgia heartbeat bill because that’s the bill of the people ... so what the people of Georgia stand for, I stand with them.”
Pressed on whether he believes there should be any limits to abortion, Warnock dodged.
“We are witnessing right now what happens when politicians, most of them men, pile into patients’ rooms, you get what you’re seeing right now.”
“I trust women more than I trust politicians,” he added.
Walker interjected, “Did he not mention that there was a baby in that room as well? And they also ask the taxpayer to pay for it, so we bring the government back into the room.”
Warnock countered that as, a pastor, he has a deep respect for life. So much so, he said has focused on maternal mortality.
“Do you want a senator who wants to control your life? Or do you want a Senator who wants to save your life?” he asked the audience. “Well, I want to save your life. God gave us a choice when it comes to abortion.”
They also sparred over a spending bill that passed this summer with Warnock’s support. The law includes a $35-a-month cap for out-of-pocket insulin costs for Medicare recipients.
“He should tell the people of Georgia why he thinks they should have expensive insulin,” Warnock said of Walker.
The Republican responded that he believed in reducing the costs of insulin but “unless you eat right insulin can do you no good.”
He said that means you have to get food and gas prices down.
Warnock fired back, “ we’re hearing from my opponent tonight that it’s their fault the prices are shooting upward.”
He said that blame lies with pharmaceutical companies — not those who suffer from diabetes.
Warnock’s most pointed attacks were aimed at Walker’s history of embellishments, falsehoods, and exaggerations.
“We will see time and time again that my opponent has a problem with the truth,” Warnock said, invoking Walker’s claims he has been in law enforcement.
“Just because he said something doesn’t mean it’s true,” Warnock said. “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.”
It was a reference to a 21-year-old police report in which Walker talked about “having a shoot-out with police” and the Republican’s false claim he served in law enforcement.
Walker pulled out what appeared to be a badge but was admonished by the moderator to put it away.
Walker said Warnock was so “desperate” to stay in the Senate he was willing to stretch the truth.
“Do not bear false witness senator,” he said.
The two each said they would accept the outcome of the election. But they differed on the 2024 presidential race.
Asked if Biden should seek a second term, Warnock demurred.
“I’ve not spent a minute thinking about what politician should run for what in 2024,” he said.
Walker, meanwhile, said he would support Republican Donald Trump if he mounts a comeback bid.
“He’s my friend,” Walker said. “I won’t leave my allies.”
Polls have shown the race is essentially tied. Walker has, so far, not agreed to participate in a face-off on Sunday night sponsored by The Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting. Warnock and Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver are scheduled to take part while Walker will be represented by an empty podium.
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