‘Make or break’: Walker and Warnock square off in Georgia Senate debate



CNN

In Georgia’s already contentious Senate race, Friday’s debate between Republican Herschel Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock will provide the highest stakes yet in Savannah.

The Senate race, one of the most competitive in the country and key to winning control of the chamber, has become muddled in recent days after Walker, a conservative who supports a full federal ban on abortion without exception, allegedly paid for one. to terminate a woman’s pregnancy and then, two years later, encourage the same woman to undergo the procedure a second time. Walker has denied the allegations, which have not been independently confirmed by CNN.

With those allegations weighing heavily on the Senate race, Democrats and Republicans see the debate as a crucial hour, when both candidates will have a chance to sway the small portion of undecided voters.

“Both candidates know full well that this debate could make or break the entire election — the stakes really couldn’t be higher,” said Randy Evans, a Republican strategist who wrote a guidebook on winning political debates in 2020.

Much of the pressure is on Walker, a political newcomer who has never been on a debate stage before. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found Warnock has 52% support among likely voters, compared to Walker’s 45%. Friday night’s showdown – the only debate the two candidates have agreed to take part in – could be the Republican’s last chance to address the latest allegations against him in front of a primetime audience.

Walker and his campaign have made the debate a priority in the final weeks of the race, according to multiple sources close to the campaign, with one source saying the candidate has devoted much of his time to preparing for his face-off with Warnock. .

Walker has turned to Republicans for advice, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a second person close to the campaign said. He has prepared for the debate by taking part in mock question-and-answer sessions with campaign aides and Walker and his aides have spent time familiarizing the candidate with Warnock’s anti-Sena debate shows at the time. Kelly Loeffler in the 2020 Senate race.

“Walker just needs to show people that he knows and cares about the issues,” said a third source close to the Walker campaign. “The reality is that with all the attacks against Walker, the debate is an opportunity for him to do well and maybe meet or exceed expectations, as well as reach new voters.”

The thinking, the source said, is that voters have been inundated with ads and news about Walker’s personal life, so the debate is an opportunity for the Republican to “show that he’s knowledgeable about the issues” and respond beyond what he can. Say it in 30 second commercials.

However, Republicans, including Walker himself, have sought to dampen expectations as he prepares to face off with Warnock, touting his ability to debate the Georgia Democrat and his career as a senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“I’m not that smart. He is a preacher. (Warnock) is smart and wears these nice suits. So he’s going to show up and embarrass me at the debate on October 14th, and I’m looking forward to showing up and I’m going to do my best,” Walker said recently.

One of Walker’s campaign sources said Warnock’s experience in the pulpit could be a double-edged sword. The Democrat has the upper hand in public speaking, the source said, but Walker may try to corner his opponent with questions about “redemption” and pastoral care if Warnock tries to go after his character.

“Herschel’s debate preparation will certainly be very different to Warnock’s because Warnock is a highly trained public speaker who has already proven to have a sharp tongue,” Evans said.

Gingrich also mentioned Walker’s football career while discussing the debate. “He had a lot of concussions from football, suffered from PTSD,” the Georgia Republican said. Walker has been open about his struggles with dissociative identity disorder.

Democrats closest to Warnock have viewed Republicans’ lowering expectations with skepticism.

“Walker’s attempts to lower expectations are not fooling anyone in Georgia,” said one Georgia-based Democratic consultant. “Georgians are not stupid.”

Warnock’s spokeswoman Sarafina Chitika also dismissed the idea that outside advice from Republicans like Gingrich and Graham would help when the debate begins.

“At the end of the day, there will be two people on the debate stage: Reverend Warnock and Herschel Walker,” Chitika said. “And the difference between them couldn’t be clearer.”

But the fact that Walker has never been debated could also work against the Democrats: operatives and advisers eager to better prepare Warnock for the stage have little idea what to expect when the former soccer star steps up to the podium. Without the debate tapes to review earlier, Democrats are left in the dark.

So far, Warnock has shown no interest in attacking Walker over the abortion allegations that have consumed the race in recent days.

“There are many [allegations]I’m not sure which ones you’re referring to,” Warnock said Wednesday when asked why he didn’t weigh more heavily in Walker’s allegations. Warnock’s outside groups have seized on the Walker drama, however, and Warnock doesn’t cover Georgia television. report the places they have

Asked about the controversy, Warnock said no: “I feel fine.”

Whether Walker will challenge the personal allegations against Warnock is an open question. A super PAC supporting Walker published an ad in March 2020 in which Warnock’s ex-wife, Oulèye Ndoye, told police she was caught running over her foot in a March 2020 incident. Warnock has denied the allegations and did not press charges, and a police report said an officer and medics at the scene found no signs of Ndoye’s injuries.

It would be a dangerous attack for Walker. If he raises the issues with Warnock, Democrats say, he risks a lengthy conversation about his personal history and personal allegations about his family and abortion.

Like other Republicans in tight Senate races, Walker is being encouraged to use the debate stage to highlight the ties between Warnock and President Joe Biden — a Quinnipiac poll that showed Warnock leading even found that 45 percent of likely voters approve of Biden’s handling of the job. to the 53% who disapprove. The Republican is also preparing to question his opponent’s “credibility” on promises to tame inflation, secure the border and curb violent crime.

A statement released by Warnock’s campaign Thursday morning said the Democrat hoped to improve his bipartisan legislative record and, seeking to distance himself from the president, noted that he has “taken on the Biden Administration to protect jobs.” Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center,” a military facility in the coastal city that faced major funding cuts and possible closure.

Warnock, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, has voted with Biden more than 96 percent of the time during his nearly two years in office.

The Warnock campaign, as the statement repeatedly states, will seek to keep the focus on the senator’s policy positions and hope that undecided voters will remain, “at the end of the night,” with “a clear sense of the difference between the two.” candidates who couldn’t be more different” – a statement that in fact suggests Walker hopes to create his own problems on the debate stage.

Facing allegations about her past, including mental health and domestic violence concerns, Walker is expected to keep her focus on the theme of redemption, which her campaign highlighted in a 30-second ad released last week.

“He is a minister. Has he ever heard of forgiveness?’ Walker said in a statement this week. “Has he ever heard of redemption?”

Walker’s campaign has been tight-lipped on debate preparations, choosing to limit preparation sessions to his immediate aides while seeking guidance and advice from outside advisers.

He speaks frequently with Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the Republican National Senatorial Committee and traveled to the battleground on Tuesday to campaign for Walker, and his team has been in regular contact with Gingrich, participating in his debate portion. and helped coach Trump-era candidate during the 2016 general election debates.

“Without the gaffer,” said one person close to Walker’s campaign, “he’ll be fine.”