ATLANTA — One is a seasoned public speaker, accustomed to delivering sermons nearly every Sunday from the pulpit of the famed Atlanta church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. The other is a political novice whose meandering, often nonsensical oratory on the stump tends to inspire as much mockery as it does applause.
The stark stylistic differences between the polished Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his less politically refined Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football great, add unpredictability and intrigue to their highly anticipated debate on Friday night.
Their matchup, just three days before early voting begins in Georgia, will be the first — and probably the only — debate in the state’s race for Senate, which has emerged as one of the most pivotal contests for control of the chamber. The one-hour event, hosted by Nexstar Media in Savannah, Ga., will begin at 7 p.m. Eastern.
The debate will test whether Mr. Warnock can expand what polls suggest is a narrow advantage over his rival, and whether Mr. Walker can quiet doubts about his qualifications for the office after a wave of explosive reports describing past behavior of his that has contradicted his public stances.
Over the summer, The Daily Beast reported that Mr. Walker had fathered three children he did not previously disclose, and more recently, an ex-girlfriend of Mr. Walker’s told The New York Times that he had paid for her to have an abortion and had asked her to have a second abortion, even though he has campaigned on his opposition to the procedure with no exceptions.
Ahead of the debate, Mr. Walker has tried to manage expectations. Last month, he half-jokingly told reporters that he was “a country boy” and “not that smart,” saying that Mr. Warnock was “going to show up and embarrass me.”
But if Mr. Walker has succeeded in setting a lower bar to clear against Mr. Warnock, who grounds many of his stump speeches in policy-heavy talking points, the face-off will also offer the Democratic incumbent a ripe opportunity to attack his opponent directly — something he has so far done only in advertisements.
Democrats have 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.
The two candidates have engaged in months of back-and-forth over whether, where and when they would debate. One day after the May 24 primary election, Mr. Warnock committed to debates in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah. Mr. Walker, who did not debate his Republican primary opponents, would not commit to any of the three events but maintained a positive front when asked about them.
“I’ve told him many times, I’m ready to debate him any time, any day,” Mr. Walker told Brian Kilmeade of Fox News in July.
His campaign did not respond to invitations from the hosts of the debates in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah that Mr. Warnock had committed to. The Walker campaign agreed in August to attend the Nexstar debate, and Mr. Warnock followed suit in September.
In a Thursday morning campaign memo, Mr. Warnock’s campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said that Friday’s debate would “put on full display the clear choice” between the two candidates, arguing that Mr. Walker’s “pattern of lies, disturbing behavior and positions prove he is not ready to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.”
Mr. Walker, who has traded time on the campaign trail for hours of intensive debate practice over the last few weeks, is likely to underline the policy differences between himself and his Democratic opponent by tying Mr. Warnock to President Biden, who is widely unpopular among Georgia voters. Mr. Walker has repeatedly criticized both Mr. Warnock and Mr. Biden for their economic policies, blaming them for higher food and fuel prices in Georgia.
In a fund-raising email to supporters on Thursday, Mr. Walker encouraged supporters to tune in to the debate and vowed to “defeat the disastrous Biden agenda” if elected to the Senate.
Still, he ended with a plea for more financial support to bolster his campaign in its final weeks.
“It’s going to take more than one event on a Friday night to convince voters there’s a better choice to turn our country around,” he wrote.
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