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Recap: Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker face off in debate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The race in Georgia could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Last night in Savannah, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock faced off against Republican Herschel Walker - the only debate between the two before the election - and as expected, the debate got sharp. Here's Senator Warnock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: We will see time and time again tonight, as we've already seen, that my opponent has a problem with the truth.

SIMON: And here is Walker's response, later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: Do not bear false witness, Senator. Do not bear false witness.

SIMON: Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler watched the debate and joins us.

Stephen, thanks for being with us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: This is the first time the candidates have met face-to-face during the campaign. Was anything revealed that was new or substantive about either of them?

FOWLER: So not really. We knew going into this that Warnock would tout his bipartisan work with people like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and his measures to lower the cost of health care for seniors. That's exactly what we heard from him, with Warnock deflecting questions about if he felt responsible for inflation with a list of accomplishments he did to keep individual costs down.

Now, Walker intentionally set his bar low, saying he's not that smart and that Warnock, a pastor, would out-debate him. That bar was cleared. We also knew that Walker's strategy was going to be to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden, who is deeply unpopular here, and say inflation, issues with the economy, crime and other things are the fault of Democratic control of Congress for the last two years. There weren't really many opportunities for the candidates to go deep on issues, given the debate format. And moderators did lose control of the candidates bickering back and forth a couple of times throughout the night.

SIMON: Of course, Mr. Walker has campaigned as being unalterably opposed to antiabortion, saying it is never acceptable under any circumstance. And, of course, recent reporting from The Daily Beast includes an accusation that, nevertheless, he paid for the abortion of a former girlfriend. Did this come up?

FOWLER: Surprisingly, Scott, barely. Walker was asked by the moderators about the story and allegation, and Herschel Walker said, yet again, it wasn't true and that he wasn't backing down from saying it wasn't true. And there wasn't really a follow-up question. And Senator Warnock didn't really push it, either. What is notable is that Walker backtracked on his absolute stance on abortion. He previously expressed support for a federal national ban, but then had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: I say I support the heartbeat bill, and I say I support the Georgia heartbeat bill because that's the bill of the people from Governor Kemp.

FOWLER: That's Georgia's new abortion law, which takes effect about six weeks into pregnancy, before many know they're pregnant. It was held up for several years by the courts but took effect after this summer's Supreme Court ruling. And Georgia's law does make exceptions for rape, incest and cases where the pregnancies are considered medical emergencies. It was one of the few really meaningful exchanges throughout the debate, and on an issue that's top of mind for many voters here.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you, Stephen, it's not only a close Senate contest, but a lot of people feel it could hold the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. And a lot of attention and money is coming in from across the country. Tell us what's at stake again.

FOWLER: Sure, because, like you said, once again, control of the U.S. Senate could come down to Georgia voters. Republicans are all in on Walker, in spite of his campaign controversies, because, at the end of the day, he could be the 51st seat for them and give them power in the second half of President Biden's first term. Even though Georgia voted for Biden in 2020, the state is still run by Republicans.

So Democrats think a Warnock win could help flip races like governor and secretary of state. It's also entirely possible, Scott, that none of these key races here see anyone get above the majority threshold needed to win outright. There's a Libertarian candidate who's actually somewhat popular, as people who don't want to vote for Herschel Walker and won't vote for Raphael Warnock are seeking a third option. So we could see an early December runoff race extend election season even further.

SIMON: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Thanks so much for being with us.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.