Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker
CNN  — 

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

The Senate contest, one of the most competitive in the country and key to winning control of the chamber, has been scrambled in recent days by news reports that Walker, a conservative who supports a full federal abortion ban with no exceptions, allegedly paid for a woman to terminate her pregnancy and then, two years later, encouraged the same woman to have the procedure a second time. Walker has denied the allegations, which have not been independently confirmed by CNN.

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  • With those allegations weighing on the Senate race, Democrats and Republicans alike view the debate as a potentially decisive hour, when both candidates will have a chance to sway the tiny sliver of remaining undecided voters.

    “Both candidates know well that this debate could be make or break for the entire election – the stakes really could not be higher,” Randy Evans, a Republican strategist who co-wrote a guidebook in 2020 on winning political debates, told CNN.

    Much of the pressure is on Walker, a political newcomer who has never before stood on a debate stage. A poll released this week by Quinnipiac University found Warnock with 52% support among likely voters, compared to 45% for Walker. Friday night’s showdown – the only debate both candidates agreed to take part in – could be the Republican’s last chance to speak out, before a primetime audience, about the recent accusations against him.

    ‘Show people… that he cares’

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

    Walker has leaned on top Republicans for advice, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said a second person close to the campaign. He has prepared for the debate by participating in mock question and answer sessions with campaign aides and both Walker and his aides have spent time familiarizing the candidate with Warnock’s past debate performances against then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler during the 2020 Senate race.

    “Walker just needs to show people he is knowledgeable on the issues and that he cares,” said a third source close to the Walker campaign. “The reality is with all the attacks that have been launched against Walker, the debate is an opportunity for him to not just do well and maybe meet or exceed expectations but also to reach new voters.”

    The thinking, the source says, is that voters have been swamped with ads and news stories about Walker’s personal life, so the debate offers an opportunity for the Republican to “show he is knowledgeable on the issues” and allow him to respond beyond what can be said in 30-second ads.

    Still, Republicans, including Walker himself, have also sought to lower expectations as he prepares to go toe-to-toe with Warnock, touting the Georgia Democrat’s ability to debate and his career as the high-profile senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

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

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

    “Herschel’s debate prep is undoubtedly going to be dramatically different from Warnock’s because Warnock is a very practiced public speaker who has demonstrated already that he has a sharp tongue,” said Evans.

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

    ‘This is about Herschel Walker’

    Democrats closest to Warnock have watched Republicans lower expectations with skepticism.

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

    Sarafina Chitika, Warnock’s spokesperson, also dismissed the idea that outside Republican advice from the likes of Gingrich and Graham would help once the debate starts.

    “At the end of the day, there are going to be two people on the debate stage: Reverend Warnock and Herschel Walker,” Chitika said. “And the difference between them could not be more clear.”

    But the fact that Walker has never debated before could work against Democrats, too: Operatives and consultants eager to better prepare Warnock for the stage have little idea what to expect when the former football star steps up to the lectern. With no earlier debate tape to study, Democrats are left largely in the dark.

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

    “There are a lot of [allegations], I’m not sure which ones you are referring to,” Warnock said on Wednesday when asked about why he wasn’t weighing in more heavily on the Walker allegations. Outside groups supporting Warnock have seized on the Walker drama, however, and Warnock has not denounced the spots blanketing televisions in Georgia.

    Asked about the debate, Warnock demurred: “I’m feeling great.”

    Whether Walker will seek to litigate personal allegations against Warnock is an open question. A super PAC supporting Walker put out an ad this highlighting a March 2020 incident in which Warnock’s ex-wife, Oulèye Ndoye, told police that he ran over her foot with his car. Warnock has denied the allegations and he was not charged, and a police report stated that an officer and medical personnel at the scene did not find any visible signs of injury to Ndoye.

    It would be a risky attack for Walker. Should he raise the issues for Warnock, Democrats argue, he risks a protracted conversation about his own personal history and the personal allegations around his family and abortion.

    ‘Absent a gaffe…’

    Like other Republicans in tight Senate contests, Walker is being advised to use the debate stage to highlight links between Warnock and President Joe Biden – the same Quinnipiac poll that showed Warnock leading also found that 45% of likely voters approve of Biden’s job handling, compared to 53% who disapprove. The Republican is also preparing to question his opponent’s “credibility” on promises about taming inflation, securing the border and curbing violent crime.

    A memo released by the Warnock campaign on Thursday morning said to expect the Democrat to play up his bipartisan legislative record and – in trying to create some distance from the President – note that he “has stood up to the Biden Administration to protect jobs at the Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center,” a military facility in the coastal city that faced major funding cuts and potential closure.

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

    The Warnock campaign, as repeatedly stated in the memo, will seek to keep the focus on the senator’s policy positions and hope that any undecided voters are left, “At the end of the night,” with a clear sense of the “difference between two candidates who couldn’t be more different” – a statement, in effect, that suggests they expect Walker to create his own problems on the debate stage.

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

    “He’s a minister. Has he ever heard of forgiveness?” Walker said at a rally this week. “Has he ever heard of redemption?”

    Walker’s campaign has kept a tight lid on their debate preparations, choosing to limit prep sessions to his immediate aides while fielding guidance and advice from outside advisers.

    He speaks frequently with Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee and traveled to the battleground state on Tuesday to campaign for Walker, and his team has been in regular touch with Gingrich, who has participated in his own fair share of debates and helped coach then-candidate Trump through general election debates in 2016.

    “Absent a gaffe,” said one of the people close to Walker’s campaign, “he’s going to be fine.”