SAVANNAH, Ga. — The former football great Herschel Walker, battling from behind in his challenge to Senator Raphael Warnock, tried to turn the campaign’s narrative on its head during a debate on Friday night, aiming to quiet doubts about his own fitness for office by seeking to question Mr. Warnock’s.
Mr. Walker, a Republican, sought to paint his Democratic rival as the untrustworthy candidate in the race, demanding loudly, “Do not bear false witness.” Mr. Warnock hit back by declaring at one point that “my children know I am with them and for them” — a far from subtle reminder to Georgians about Mr. Walker’s turbulent personal life and accusations that he is an absentee father to at least one of his children.
The first and probably only debate of the critical Senate race in Georgia, just three days before early voting begins in the state, was contentious and often messy, pitting a political novice, Mr. Walker, against the incumbent Democrat, Mr. Warnock, a seasoned public speaker who delivers sermons nearly every Sunday at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Mr. Warnock, with a narrow and tenuous lead in the polls, was controlled and cautious, going on the attack only a few times and avoiding directly answering questions when doing so could alienate the moderate Republicans he has courted. Mr. Walker was aggressive and persistent, at times mocking his opponent’s dodges, often interrupting him and consistently going over his time limits, earning admonishments from the moderators.
Mr. Walker’s posture reflected his need for a strong performance after weeks of negative headlines, most prominently a former girlfriend’s statements that he paid for one abortion and urged her to end a second pregnancy, even though Mr. Walker is campaigning on his opposition to abortion.
Despite his troubles, the national Republican Party has stood by its candidate, sending in professional campaign reinforcements and debate coaching — and those moves seem to have paid off.
After campaigning far to the right, Mr. Walker reversed field on Friday, backtracking on some core elements of his platform. He had said for months that he wanted to end abortion without exceptions. On Friday, he said he supported the exceptions that Georgia’s Legislature included in its six-week abortion ban, for women whose pregnancies are considered futile or for medical emergencies and cases of rape or incest.
In December 2020, Mr. Walker said: “I can guarantee you, Joe Biden didn’t get 50 million people voting for him. But yet people think that he’s won this election.” On Friday night, he said Mr. Biden had won the election.
Mr. Warnock declined to say whether he thought Mr. Biden should run for re-election, saying: “You’re asking me who’s going to run in ’24? The people of Georgia get to decide who’s going to be their senator in three days.” He also embraced many of the policies the president has pushed, like student loan forgiveness.
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At times, Mr. Walker tripped up on his language and policy details, including when he said he wanted Georgians to move away from government health care to the kind of insurance Mr. Warnock has — which is government-subsidized health care.
At one point, Mr. Walker also seemed to blame people with diabetes for their condition, saying during a discussion on insulin costs that while he believed in reducing the price of the drug, “at the same time, you got to eat right,” adding that “unless you’re eating right, insulin is doing you no good.”
But overall, Mr. Walker held his own after he and his campaign had assiduously tried to lower expectations ahead of the debate. A month beforehand, the candidate half-jokingly told reporters that he was “a country boy” and “not that smart.” Mr. Warnock, he said, was “going to show up and embarrass me.”
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That did not happen, but Mr. Walker’s biggest task was to quell doubts about his qualifications for the office.
It is unclear if he succeeded. He continued his outright denial of the abortion claims by his former girlfriend. “I said that was a lie, and I’m not backing down,” he said.
In perhaps Mr. Warnock’s most combative move, he pivoted from a question about “defunding police” to Mr. Walker’s history of violent altercations and exaggerations of his résumé, including a claim that he had been in law enforcement.
“I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police,” Mr. Warnock said, prompting Mr. Walker to seem to prove his opponent’s point — and run afoul of the debate moderators — by pulling what appeared to be a badge out of his pocket, a violation of the debate’s prohibition on props.
Needing to land some blows, Mr. Walker sought to tar Mr. Warnock as a prevaricator, a line of attack that stemmed from newspaper articles about a report that Ebenezer Baptist Church had tried to evict some residents from an apartment building it owns.
Mr. Warnock said the church had evicted no one, even saying that his opponent had sullied the pulpit from which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. But that only prompted Mr. Walker to suggest he was lying.
Mr. Warnock retorted, “My opponent has a problem with the truth.”
Absent from the debate was a sustained focus on Mr. Walker’s baggage, which includes allegations of domestic violence, his out-of-wedlock children, and altercations with the police. The moderators of the one-hour debate, hosted in Savannah by Nexstar Media, frequently cut off exchanges about personalities and pasts in hopes of focusing on the issues — but that approach seemed to favor Mr. Walker.
When Mr. Walker’s personal problems came up in glancing references, he repeated his past statements that he struggled with mental illness and has since received successful treatment. He also tried to say Mr. Warnock was stigmatizing mental illness by questioning his past.
Mr. Walker said he was no longer being treated for dissociative identity disorder, the mental illness he has blamed for violence in his past.
“I am ready to serve,” he said.
He tried to underscore that point by drawing a contrast with Mr. Warnock, who he said repeatedly had voted in line with Mr. Biden “96 percent of the time.”
“It is evident that he has a point that he tried to make time and time again,” a more agitated Mr. Warnock responded in the last few minutes of the debate.
The two candidates had engaged in months of back-and-forth over whether, where and when they would debate, before finally agreeing to Friday’s event.
Leading up to the debate, Mr. Warnock had tried to run a campaign heavy on policy to avoid direct confrontations with his opponent. But on his behalf, Democrats flooded the airwaves with millions of dollars in negative advertising against Mr. Walker, underlining allegations of domestic violence brought forth by his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, and his son Christian Walker.
On Friday, Mr. Walker acknowledged that some voters might have worries about his candidacy, looking directly into the camera and making a direct appeal to those “who are concerned about voting for me, a non-politician.”