Five things to watch for in the Georgia gubernatorial debate

Five things to watch for in the Georgia gubernatorial debate
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Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp are set to face off on Tuesday night in the first debate of their closely-watched gubernatorial race. 

Abrams is a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, while Kemp currently serves as secretary of state.

The debate will be one of their first opportunities to face each other in a race that has been marked by sharp attacks from both parties, from allegations of voter suppression to incidents involving the Confederate flag.

If elected, Abrams would be the first black female governor of a U.S. state, a fact that has galvanized Democratic supporters across the country. Meanwhile, Trump-backed Kemp has a loyal Republican following. 

Recent polls have Kemp and Abrams neck and neck, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a "toss-up." 

The two will be joined by libertarian candidate Ted Metz.

Here are five things to watch for in Tuesday night's debate, which starts at 7 p.m. EDT. 

How will Kemp push back against allegations of voter suppression?  

Allegations of voter suppression have dominated the race in recent days. Abrams has called on Kemp to step down after The Associated Press reported that more than 53,000 voter registration applications — 70 percent of them from black voters — are on hold after failing to meet the state’s “exact match” law.

Georgia law requires an applicant's information on a voter registration form to exactly match the information on a federal or state database.

Abrams has accused Kemp of abusing his position overseeing the state's elections in order to disenfranchise minority voters, calling him a "remarkable architect of voter suppression." 

Kemp has strongly denied that, saying voters will still be able to vote, while accusing his Democratic opponent of playing politics.

What role will Trump play in the debate? 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE offered a full-throated endorsement of Kemp ahead of Georgia's gubernatorial run-off and has continued to support the secretary of state as the general election approaches. But Kemp has been seeking to downplay his more conservative positions.

Trump in a tweet over the weekend hit Abrams without mentioning her by name, tweeting Kemp's opponent "is totally unqualified" and "would destroy a great state." 

"Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be a great governor," Trump wrote. "He has been successful at whatever he has done, and has prepared for this very difficult and complex job for many years. He has my Strong Endorsement." 

While Trump's endorsement has bolstered GOP candidates in some competitive races, it's less clear how it will play in Georgia, a state he won by about 5 percentage points in 2016. A recent SurveyUSA poll found Trump with a 45 percent unfavorability rating, compared to 36 percent favorability. 

Abrams used Trump's endorsement of Kemp as a fundraising opportunity in July.

"Trump just jumped into the race for #GAGov," she tweeted with a donation link. "But if we stand together, Trump and whoever Georgia Republicans nominate next Tuesday won’t stand a chance."

Will Kemp hit Abrams over the flag burning issue? 

Kemp has not yet publicly responded to a resurfaced 1992 news article showing a photo of Abrams burning the state flag, which at the time included an image of the Confederate battle flag. Abrams was a freshman in college at the time. 

The Abrams campaign has defended her action as a "permitted, peaceful protest against the Confederate emblem in the flag." 

Georgia spent the 1990s deeply divided over the flag's Confederate design, which many saw as a symbol of white supremacy. The state ultimately removed its Confederate imagery in 2003.  

Some commentators have also defended Abrams, saying the burning of the flag was a protest against the flag's racist symbology.

The invocation of Confederate imagery in the Georgia race is a reminder of another high-stakes clash between the candidates: their opposing stances on the state's Confederate monuments. 

When Abrams in 2017 called for the removal of a Confederate statue near Atlanta over its ties to a white supremacist history, Kemp said he would defend the monument against "the radical left."

How will the third-party candidate fare? 

Polls that include libertarian candidate Ted Metz find him receiving around 2-3 percent of the vote, potentially enough to sway a tight election.

Metz is a retired former Republican whose platform hinges on the legalization of marijuana, lower tax rates, deregulation, gun rights and more. He also vigorously promotes a call for small government. 

He is a Navy veteran who worked in the insurance and telecom industries before retiring, and he now serves as the chairman of the Libertarian Party of Georgia.

Metz has called both Kemp and Abrams "corrupt" and insisted the voting system is rigged.

"If a vote for the Libertarian is really a vote for the Democrat, and some people would argue it’s really a vote for the Republican, then that must mean a libertarian vote is worth three votes," he said during an interview with the Independent Voter Network. 

"I try at every chance I get to speak to tell people that the essence of libertarianism is 'leave me alone,' 'don’t tell me what to do,' 'don’t steal my stuff,'" he added. "And most people totally agree with that." 

What will the candidates say about immigration? 

During the Republican primary, Kemp campaigned on a hard-line immigration stance, appearing in an ad driving a pick-up truck and promising to personally "round up criminal illegals" himself.

He has since sought to tone down his extreme rhetoric on a number of issues, including immigration, as candidates must compete not only in conservative rural areas but also for more moderate voters in places like Atlanta.

Abrams's pro-immigration views have not played a central role in her campaign, but she has vowed to "stand with" Georgia's immigrant communities and called for the federal government to take on the issue with "bipartisan legislation."

Kemp, on the other hand, has proposed creating a database to track immigrants with criminal convictions and called to speed up deportations. He frequently vows to protect "hardworking Georgians" from "illegal" immigrants.

Kemp's harsh stance on immigration played well with Trump voters, but he'll now have to walk the line between wooing moderates and maintaining that base.

Trump has recently put immigration front and center, seeking to stoke fears over a migrant "caravan" approaching the U.S. border and likely forcing candidates in the midterm races to address the issue.