savannah – Senate hopefuls Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker faced each other Friday night in their first and only scheduled pre-election debate, addressing a variety of issues vital to the state’s voters.
Both candidates pledged in their opening statements to be strong advocates for Georgia in Washington. Warnock said he grew up in council housing near where the debate took place, telling viewers that “only in America is my story possible”.
The candidates discussed many issues critical of the state, including economics, electoral integrity and abortion. Throughout the debate, Walker repeatedly attempted to link Warnock to President Biden, telling voters that Warnock voted with the President 96% of the time.
Warnock declined to say whether he would support Mr Biden if he ran for office again in 2024, telling voters: “I didn’t give a minute’s thought to who should run.”
Walker, on the other hand, said he would fully support former President Donald Trump if he ran again, saying Trump is his “friend” and “I will not leave my allies.” However, both candidates conceded that Mr. Biden won the 2020 election, and both pledged to respect the results of the Georgia race.
In another notable moment later in the debate, Warnock criticized Walker for having “a problem with the truth”, referring to reports that he previously pretended to be a member of law enforcement. Walker then appeared to show off some sort of badge and said he had worked “with a lot of cops,” prompting one presenter to punish him for bringing what she called a “prop.”
“It’s not a prop, it’s real,” Walker replied.
Abortion has drawn additional attention to the race in recent days following a recent report from The Daily Beast that Walker, an opponent of access to abortion, paid for a woman to have an abortion. The news outlet later reported that the woman is the mother of one of Walker’s children. Walker has repeatedly denied the reproach. CBS News has not confirmed Daily Beast’s coverage.
Walker said again Friday night that the allegation was a “lie” and told voters that “I’m a Christian, I believe in life.”
And as he did in an interview with ABC News earlier this week, Walker further softened his previous stance on abortion, though on Friday he denied that was the case. He said in the debate that he supports Georgia’s “Heartbeat” bill, which is the 2019 abortion law that went into effect after Roe v. Wade had been overturned by the Supreme Court, ending federal abortion rights.
“I say I support the Heartbeat bill,” Walker said Friday. “And I say I support Georgia’s Heartbeat Act because that’s the law of Governor Kemp’s people. And I said that has exceptions. I said I’m a Christian, but I also represent the people of Georgia and that’s who I represent. So what the people of Georgia stand for, I will stand with them.
Georgian law allows exceptions for rape and incest when a police report is filed. There is also an exception when the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus does not become viable.
Earlier this year, however, Walker completed a candidate poll for an anti-abortion group, the Georgia Life Alliance, in which he said he supports a ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or maternal health.
“There is no exception in my eyes,” Walker told reporters at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia, in May, adding, “Like I said, I believe in life. I believe in life.”
Before the debate, supporters of each candidate who spoke to CBS News said they planned to tune in.
In Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville, which has a brand new soccer field near downtown that bears his name, some residents said they were looking forward to seeing the University of Georgia soccer great on stage.
“I plan to watch anything I can get my hands on because I like to be well informed on both sides,” said Robert Colson, a Walker supporter. “If I get the truth out of a candidate, that will impress me.”
Not far from Raphael Warnock Way in Savannah, Tammie Jenkins, who went to high school with Warnock, said she hopes the debate will focus on the issues.
“He was always smart,” Jenkins said of Warnock. She supported him in 2020 but remains open. “I want to know and see everyone’s opinions.”
Many of the constituents CBS News spoke to were with Jenkins — they wanted to hear about issues important to them, like the economy.
“All that backslashing and everything that doesn’t matter, it mostly comes down to what you’re going to do when you get into the Senate seat,” said Jennifer Jordan, who is worried about the economy and rising gas and food prices.
Most polls have the pair effectively tied, and the CBS News Battleground Tracker has dubbed Georgia a “toss up” state with just 25 days until Election Day. Republicans across the country are keeping their eyes on the peach state as they try to regain control of the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 but under Democratic control because Vice President Kamala Harris is cutting all ties.
Early voting begins on Monday. Traditionally, Democrats do better in early voting, so high turnout could be an indicator for Warnock, while lower turnout could be positive for Walker.