Savannah – Senate hopefuls Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker faced off Friday night in their first and only scheduled debate before the election, addressing a wide range of topics crucial 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 being held, telling viewers that “only in America is my story possible.”
The candidates discussed many issues critical to the state, including the economy, election integrity and abortion. Throughout the debate, Walker repeatedly tried to link Warnock to President Biden, telling voters that Warnock has voted 96% of the time with the president.
Warnock declined to say whether he would back Mr. Biden if he ran for office again in 2024, telling voters, “I have not thought for a minute about who should run.”
Walker, on the other hand, said he’d fully support former President Donald Trump if he ran again, saying Trump is his “friend” and “I won’t leave my allies.” Both candidates, however, acknowledged that Mr. Biden won the 2020 election, and both pledged to respect the results of Georgia’s race.
In another notable moment later in the debate, Warnock criticized Walker for having “a problem with the truth” and referenced reports that he had previously pretended to be a member of law enforcement. Walker then appeared to flash some kind of badge, saying he’s worked “with many police officers,” which prompted a moderator to chastise him for bringing what she called a “prop.”
“It’s not a prop, this is real,” Walker responded.
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 abortion access opponent, paid for a woman’s abortion. The news outlet later reported that the woman is the mother of one of Walker’s children. Walker has repeatedly denied the allegation. CBS News has not confirmed the Daily Beast’s reporting.
Walker on Friday night said 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 stance on abortion, though he denied Friday this was the case. He said in the debate that he supports the Georgia “heartbeat” bill, which is the 2019 abortion law that went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, ending the federal right to an abortion.
“I say I support the heartbeat bill,” Walker said Friday. “And I say I support the Georgia heartbeat bill because that’s the bill of the people from Gov. Kemp. And I said that has exceptions in it. I said I’m a Christian, but I’m also representing the people of Georgia, and that’s who I represent. So what the people at Georgia stand for, I’m gonna stand with them.”
The 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 at risk, or the fetus becomes unviable.
Earlier this year, though, Walker filled out a candidate survey for an anti-abortion group, the Georgia Life Alliance, in which he indicated he supported an abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.
“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 with CBS News said they planned to tune in.
In Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville, where a brand new football field bearing his name sits near the town center, some local residents said they were looking forward to seeing the University of Georgia football great take the stage.
“I’m planning to watch everything I get my fingers on because I like to be well-informed on both sides,” said Robert Colson, a Walker supporter. “If I can find 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 supported 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 to were with Jenkins — they wanted to hear about issues they care about, like the economy.
“All the backslashing and all that doesn’t matter, it mostly gets down to what are you going 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 take back control of the Senate, currently split 50-50, but under Democratic control because Vice President Kamala Harris breaks any tie.
Early voting starts Monday. Traditionally, Democrats do better in early voting, so heavy turnout could be an indicator that favors Warnock, while lighter turnout could be positive for Walker.