Savannah – Senate hopefuls Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker met Friday night in their first and only scheduled pre-election debate, addressing a wide range of issues critical 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 public housing down the road from where the debate was held and told viewers that “only in America is my story possible.”
The candidates debated many issues critical to the state, including the economy, election integrity and abortion. Throughout the debate, Walker repeatedly tried to connect Warnock with President Biden, telling voters that Warnock has voted with the president 96% of the time.
Warnock declined to say whether he would support Mr Biden if he ran again in 2024, telling voters: “I haven’t thought for a minute about who is going to 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 abandon my allies.” However, both candidates acknowledged that Mr. Biden won the 2020 election, and both promised 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” and referred to reports that he had previously impersonated a member of law enforcement. Walker appeared to flash some sort of badge and said he has worked “with a lot of police officers,” prompting a moderator to chastise him for bringing what she called a “prop.”
“It’s not a prop, it’s real,” Walker replied.
Abortion has brought an extra level of attention to the race in recent days, due to a recent report by The Daily Beast that Walker, an opponent of access to abortion, paid for a woman’s abortion. The news outlet later reported that the woman is the mother of one of Walker’s children. Walker hasthe claim. CBS News has not confirmed the Daily Beast’s reporting.
Walker said Friday night once again that the allegation is a “lie,” telling voters that “I’m a Christian, I believe in life.”
And as he did in an interview with ABC News earlier this week, Walker continued to soften his previous position on abortion, although on Friday he denied that this was the case. He said in the debate that he supports the Georgia “heartbeat” bill, which is the 2019 abortion law that took effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, ending the federal right to an abortion.
“I say I support the heartbeat law,” Walker said Friday. “And I say I support the Georgia Heartbeat bill because it’s the people’s bill from Governor Kemp. And I said there are exceptions to that. I said I’m a Christian, but I also represent the people of Georgia , and that’s who I represent. So whatever the people of Georgia stand for, I’ll stand with them.”
Georgia law allows exceptions for rape and incest if a police report is filed. There is also an exception if the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus becomes non-viable.
Earlier this year, however, Walker filled out a candidate survey for an anti-abortion group, the Georgia Life Alliance, in which he indicated he supported an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health.
“There’s no exception in my mind,” Walker told reporters in May at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia, adding, “Like I say, I believe in life. I believe in life.”
Ahead of the debate, supporters of each candidate who spoke to CBS News said they planned to run.
In Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville, where a brand new football field bearing his name sits near downtown, some local residents said they were looking forward to seeing the University of Georgia football big take the stage.
“I plan to watch everything I can get my hands on because I like to be well informed on both sides,” said Robert Colson, a Walker supporter. “If I can 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 hoped the debate would stay focused on the issues.
“He was always smart,” Jenkins said of Warnock. She endorsed him in 2020 but is keeping an open mind. “I want to know and see everyone’s opinions.”
Many of the voters CBS News spoke with were with Jenkins — they wanted to hear about issues they care about, like the economy.
“All the pushback and all that doesn’t matter, it’s mostly about what you want to do if you get into the Senate seat,” said Jennifer Jordan, who worries about the economy and rising gas and food prices.
Most polls have the pair virtually tied, and the CBS News Battleground Tracker has Georgia as a “toss up” state with just 25 days until Election Day. Republicans nationwide are keeping their eyes on the Peach State as they try to work to retake control of the Senate, currently split 50-50 but under Democratic control because Vice President Kamala Harris is breaking any ties.
Early voting starts on Monday. Democrats traditionally do better in early voting, so high turnout could be an indicator favoring Warnock, while lower turnout could be positive for Walker.