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What you missed from Greg Abbott, Beto O’Rourke’s debate in Texas governor’s race

The debate was held while many Texans attended high-school football games and TV audiences were small.

EDINBURG — Gov. Greg Abbott and challenger Beto O’Rourke traded blows over border security, abortion and gun violence Friday in a debate televised statewide.

While dodging tough questions – such as why Abbott has moved rightward and why O’Rourke has run for so many offices lately – the candidates probed for the other’s weak spot.

As he did in 2018, the governor limited the risk of gaffes and setbacks by insisting on a debate held while many Texans attend high-school football games – and TV audiences are small.

Here’s what you might have missed if you were at a game or otherwise occupied Friday night:

O’Rourke accused Abbott of failing

From the start of the debate, O’Rourke focused on what he perceives as Abbott’s shortcomings as governor.

“He’s going to try to lie about my record, and he’s going to distract from his failures, whether it’s his failure to keep the lights on in the grid, his failure to address school shootings or his failure in immigration,” the Democrat said.

Abbott touted wins as governor

Abbott took credit for progress in the areas O’Rourke cited, which the Democrat disputed.

Texas’ power grid “is more resilient and reliable than it’s ever been,” the governor said.

On guns and the May massacre in Uvalde, Abbott said mental health “is leading people to engage in school shootings, and Texas is already addressing that.” He also said he would make school safety an emergency issue in next year’s legislative session.

Without accounting for student enrollment growth and inflation, Abbott cast himself as an education governor.

“I provided more funding for education than any governor in Texas history,” he said, noting that he pushed through a bill in 2019 that could allow master teachers to command six-figure salaries.

O’Rourke kept his cool

Confounding some political veterans’ expectations, O’Rourke came across in measured tones, while Abbott for much of the debate was the aggressor, calling out what he said were his opponent’s inaccurate statements.

“I’m governing from principles. I’m not looking at changing or flip-flopping positions like other people do,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to his Democratic opponent, whom he addressed dismissively as “Beto.”

One point of agreement

The candidates both said Texas should spend nothing on border security – albeit for entirely different reasons.

Migrant busing a hot topic

The governor’s busing of migrants to cities such as Washington and New York has been a subject of national news, and he said Friday it would continue.

“[Border communities] needed relief and busing was one of the ways that provided them relief,” Abbott said.

He also disputed New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ contention that his aides had called Abbott’s office to protest a lack of coordination on the shipments of undocumented immigrants.

After the debate, Adams’ press secretary, Fabien Levy, told The Dallas Morning News their office did call Abbott’s about the issue and tweeted a screenshot of an email he said confirms it.

O’Rourke zeroed in on abortion rights

“This election is about reproductive freedom,” O’Rourke said, noting laws Abbott signed outlaw virtually all abortions in Texas, with no exceptions for rape or incest. “If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote.”

The Democrat, who focused on abortion in his first two television ads, turned up the heat on Abbott’s much-criticized comment that victims of rape and incest should seek emergency contraception, such as the Plan B pill.

Tough questions about guns, Uvalde

Abbott was pressed about declining to call a special session to address gun violence after May 24, when an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

Gun control advocates have been urging Abbott to take action to curb mass shootings, and polls show a majority of Texans want elected officials to do more, such as raising the minimum age for buying assault-style weapons to 21.

Though several states have done so, Abbott said, “it is a false promise to suggest that will be upheld by the Constitution.”

Reminded of his 2019 vow to take people’s assault-style rifles, O’Rourke said, “the only place an AR-15 or AK-47 makes sense is on the battlefield.”

But as a candidate for governor, he said he wants progress on “common sense” gun proposals such as raising the age, red flag laws and universal background checks.

“We will get that done. We will make progress and take action where this governor failed,” he said.

‘Facts’ were flying

The candidates clashed over a range of topics, not always with the facts on their side. We sought to verify what Abbott and O’Rourke said about abortion, migrant buses, border security, inflation, the power grid and the rape kit backlog in Texas.

State of the race

The race is the toughest yet of the governor’s 27 years in statewide politics. He defeated former state Sen. Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points to win his first term as governor in 2014, and in 2018, dispatched former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez with a 13-point win.

This year, most public polls show Abbott with a lead over O’Rourke in the high single digits.

The last word

In their closing statements, the rivals boiled their platforms to 30-second sound bites.

“I’m running for reelection to keep Texas number one, to cut your property taxes, to secure the border, to keep dangerous criminals behind bars and to keep deadly fentanyl off our streets,” Abbott said.

Responded O’Rourke, “I’ll keep your lights on. I’ll make sure they keep your kids safe. We’ll lower these property taxes and we’ll prioritize the lives of each and every single Texan.”

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