Republican Brian Kemp says he will not recuse himself as Georgia's chief elections officer even if his gubernatorial race with Democrat Stacey Abrams goes to a recount.
The first question posed to the two-term Georgia secretary of state, asked by a debate moderator Tuesday night in Atlanta, drove at an issue that has drawn national attention to the campaign: accusations today, and from over the past eight years, that Kemp has sought to suppress the minority vote.
"We've got a very competent elections team to oversee that (recount) process," Kemp said, and in a nod to the microscope now on the state, added: "I'm certain that there would be a lot of people watching that."
With only 14 days to go before Election Day and early voting now in its second week, the contest to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Nathan Deal looks destined for a narrow finish, with the potential -- if neither major-party candidate wins a majority -- of a December runoff. In their Tuesday debate, the first of two, Abrams twice warned that Kemp's record in Georgia had created and sustained worries over the election process that could both turn away and scare off potential voters.
"Voter suppression is not simply about being told 'no,' " Abrams said. "It's about being told it is going to be hard to cast a ballot. And that's the deeper concern that I have. Because under (his) eight years of leadership, Mr. Kemp has created an atmosphere of fear around the right to vote in the state of Georgia."
Before she could blast Kemp, though, she was quizzed about a news report earlier in the day that said she had participated in a protest in 1992 that included burning Georgia's flag, which back then still featured the Confederate battle emblem. It had been added back to the flag, and placed prominently, in 1956 during the civil rights era.
After tracing her youth in the state's public schools and recalling her time at Spelman College in Atlanta, Abrams spoke about her role in the demonstration decades ago.
"Twenty-six years ago as a college freshman, I along with many other Georgians -- including the governor of Georgia -- were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol," she said. "I took an action of peaceful protest. I said that that was wrong. And 10 years later, my opponent, Brian Kemp, actually voted to remove that symbol."
Kemp, who has not publicly commented on the flag-burning report, did not mention it at the debate or reply to Abrams' response to the question about it.
He was, however, asked repeatedly by Abrams and the moderators about voting-related issues, and maintained that he could do the job fairly despite his obvious interest in the election's outcome.
"There are 7 million people that have correctly filled the form out," Kemp said, referencing the state's registration total, "and (Abrams is) blaming me for a few that couldn't do that or they simply don't exist."
"She's lying about my record," he said, "to hide her extreme agenda."
The number of registrations stuck in "pending" status with Kemp's offices under Georgia's "exact match" law is more than 50,000, with nearly 70% of them, according to an Associated Press report, belonging to African-Americans. Kemp has said that anyone who brings the appropriate identification to the polls will be allowed to vote on-site.
After a fire alarm interrupted the proceedings early on, stalling the hotly anticipated debate for nearly three minutes, Kemp and Abrams -- with Libertarian candidate Ted Metz on hand for the occasional cameo -- jousted over their visions for health care in the state and, as has become a theme in recent weeks, a false claim by Kemp that Abrams is asking undocumented immigrants to vote for her.
"In a recent video," Kemp said, "you called on illegals to vote for you in this election. I was actually shocked -- I had to watch that video twice. It clearly shows that you were asking for undocumented and documented folks to be part of your winning strategy."
In fact, she did not. Abrams, who was speaking at a phone bank launch, can be seen and heard in the video listing an assortment of groups, including undocumented immigrants, who would benefit from a "blue wave" of Democratic victories in November.
Abrams denied the charge again Tuesday, saying: "I have never in my life asked for anyone who is not legally eligible to vote to be able to cast a ballot. What I have asked for is that you allow those who are legally eligible to vote, to allow them to cast their ballot."
When the debate turned to health care, Abrams -- as many Democrats have in this election cycle -- questioned Kemp's commitment to preserving coverage protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, pointing to his support for a pre-Obamacare state bill from 2005 that would have eased requirements on insurance companies.
Kemp called the suggestion "absurd" and accused Abrams -- who wants to expand Medicaid under Obamacare in Georgia but does not support a "Medicare-for-all" single payer plan for the state -- of effectively seeking to destroy Medicare and Medicaid in its current forms.
Asked by a moderator how she planned to steer a Medicaid expansion through the Republican-held Legislature, Abrams twice invoked an unlikely name: Vice President Mike Pence.
"I'm so bullish on Medicaid expansion because I know it works," Abrams said. "It's a bipartisan proven solution that even Gov. Mike Pence did in the state of Indiana."