ATLANTA — Johnny Isakson, the front-runner in Georgia's U.S. Senate race, maintained support for his party's presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday while fending off attacks about his congressional record.
The three U.S. Senate candidates clashed repeatedly during the campaign's only debate, held a little more than two weeks before election day. Isakson, a Republican seeking a third term, faces Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley.
Isakson has a double-digit lead in public polling, and Barksdale aggressively tried to make up ground by questioning Isakson's continued support for Trump. Barksdale specifically pressed Isakson on whether people should believe numerous women alleging that Trump has kissed or touched them without consent.
Isakson didn't respond directly, reiterating his earlier comments that Trump's recorded statements about groping women were "totally inappropriate." He said public officials have to be role models. Asked whether he will support Trump, Isakson said: "I'm going to vote for him as I support the ticket."
Asked about Trump's frequent warnings that the presidential race is rigged against him, all three Senate candidates said they don't believe it and will respect the results in that contest and their own.
But much of Friday's hour-long debate focused on clear differences between the two major party candidates on health care, financial regulations and immigration. Barksdale and Isakson also clashed over foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
Isakson blamed the U.S. exit from Iraq for growth of the Islamic State group and urged a more active role in the region.
"Until we put the boots on the ground necessary and we have a coalition in the Middle East to go in and root them out, we're going to continue have the threat of terrorism not only in the Middle East but at home in America," Isakson said.
Barksdale called that "recklessness" and said he opposed the war in Iraq and would oppose the U.S. leading further military efforts in the region. Instead, he said the U.S. should let its allies "take the lead."
"Ultimately, this is a fight that only they can win," Barksdale said. "We can't go in and have no exit strategy again."
Barksdale, who backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton, often emulated the Vermont senator's populist themes. He said campaign finance laws favor incumbents and called for changes to tax "loopholes" for corporations.
He also called for term limits on members of Congress, saying one or two terms is enough for a senator. Isakson, though, said each election is an opportunity for voters to send him home.
The incumbent also made clear appeals to conservative voters, saying that he won't support any citizenship "pathway" for people who immigrate to the U.S. illegally. He also said President Barack Obama's signature health care law must be replaced but backed continuing coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and increased cutoff ages for young adults to stay on their parents' policies.
Buckley largely targeted Isakson on the national debt and tax policy. The two sparred several times over "conservative ratings" by various political organizations. Isakson's most emotional response, though, came when Buckley suggested that "the best thing" for Isakson this year would be deciding not to seek another term.
Isakson called the remark "a veiled reference" to disclosing that he has Parkinson's disease. Isakson, who is 71, said disclosing the diagnosis in 2015 was "the hardest thing I ever did and the best thing I ever did."
Georgia law requires the top vote-getter to win more than 50 percent of the vote in November. If no one reaches that threshold, Barksdale and Isakson likely will wind up in a nine-week runoff.
Isakson held a significant fundraising advantage heading into October, reporting about $2.2 million in cash on hand to Barksdale's cash total of more than $837,000. The incumbent Republican reported a haul of more than $1.1 million between July and the start of October. Barksdale raised more than $322,000 during the same period.
Barksdale loaned his campaign another $400,000 in the latest figures, bringing the total to $3.5 million.