ATLANTA — Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp met Tuesday evening in their first of two debates in a fierce governor's race rocked recently by charges of voter suppression and images of Abrams burning a Confederate insignia as a college student.
The latest turns highlight Abrams' historic bid to become the first black female governor in American history and the long-simmering politics of race in the Deep South. Kemp continued to fend off charges that he's using his position as secretary of state to make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots.
Libertarian candidate Ted Metz also participated in the debate.
Abrams said that Kemp's record as Georgia's secretary of state "causes great concern" and pointed to the release of voter data under Kemp's watch and the state's "exact match" voter registration system. She said Kemp, who oversees elections, has made it harder for legal citizens to cast ballots.
"Voter suppression isn't only about blocking the vote: It's also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won't count," Abrams said.
Kemp said accusations that he was suppressing the vote were "totally untrue." He fired back, citing a recent video clip in which Abrams seems to say that "undocumented" immigrants were part of her coalition.
"Why are you encouraging people to break the law to vote for you?" Kemp asked.
Abrams said that Kemp was twisting her words and her record of making it easier for legal citizens to vote.
The two also traded barbs over education and health care policy.
The race is being watched as a barometer for Democrats' success in the midterm elections, as they try to make gains in Congress and in important state positions to counter President Donald Trump's agenda.
Tensions escalated following a recent Associated Press report that more than 53,000 voter applications — nearly 70 percent of them from blacks — were on hold with Kemp's office ahead of the election.
Abrams has leveraged media coverage of the list and accused Kemp of actively suppressing minority votes.
Kemp vehemently denies it and says those on the "pending" list can still vote with an approved ID that substantially matches registration information.
Kemp has counter-punched hard at Abrams, saying she's "too extreme for Georgia."
Two reports surfaced just before the debate that played into their competing narratives.
A New York Times report identified Abrams as a participant in a burning of the Georgia flag while she was a college student in 1992 during a protest over a prominent Confederate symbol, which was then part of the flag's design.
Abrams' campaign said the protest was "peaceful" and "permitted." Kemp's campaign did not reply to request for comment.
Rolling Stone magazine released an audio clip in which Kemp appears to say that he is worried about an "unprecedented" number of absentee ballot applications after Abrams' campaign focused on turning out its base with absentee ballots.
Kemp's campaign did not address the audio recording in a statement, but said it was fighting to stop Abrams and the "San Francisco socialists and liberal billionaires from New York" that back her.
Abrams' campaign said the recording shows "Brian Kemp's contempt for democracy is now on full display as he flaunts his fear that his office's blatant efforts at voter suppression won't be sufficient to win this election for him."
Both candidates have attracted national heavyweights in a sign of just how seriously the parties are taking the contest.
Abrams' campaign has enlisted A-list celebrities like recording artist John Legend, as well as national Democratic hopefuls with possible 2020 aspirations like U.S. Senators Corey Booker and Kamala Harris. She's also been endorsed by former president Barack Obama.
Kemp, who earned President Trump's endorsement, saw visits from Donald Trump Jr., Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, among others.
Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University, said the race is being watched so closely because it exemplifies the nation's split over President Trump.
"I think a lot of the energy and enthusiasm we are seeing is by people who want to vote Trump out of office, and by those who want to support Trump," Swint said.