ATLANTA — The candidates in the closely watched race for governor of Georgia hammered one another Tuesday evening in a debate broadcast live on Georgia Public Broadcasting stations and streamed on Facebook Live and on the web.
Within minutes of starting, the debate was interrupted briefly by a fire alarm in the studio. But soon the candidates were back on air, sparring heatedly over the issues of Medicaid expansion, their personal financial histories and voter registration.
The debate was the first time Georgia voters had a chance to see the main candidates — Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp — go head-to-head in what has been a close, hard-fought and potentially historic race. The Libertarian candidate in the race, Ted Metz, also took part.
Ms. Abrams, the Democrat, is a former minority leader in the state House of Representatives; if she wins, she would be the first black woman to become governor of an American state. Mr. Kemp, the Republican, who is white, is the Georgia secretary of state; if he wins, it will underscore his party’s enduring strength in a Southern state that has not elected a Democratic governor since 1998.
A chunk of the debate focused on a long list of actions by Mr. Kemp’s office that his critics say have either prevented or discouraged people, particularly nonwhites, from voting. A recent Associated Press report showed that his office, following a law Mr. Kemp supported, has held up the voter registrations of more than 50,000 people, most of them black, because of perceived problems with their registration forms.
“Under Secretary Kemp, more people have lost the right to vote in the state of Georgia,” Ms. Abrams said. “They’ve been purged, they’ve been suppressed and they’ve been scared.”
Mr. Kemp argued, as he has in the past, that he had actually made it easier to vote in Georgia. “If you look at the numbers, minority participation in Georgia is up 23 percent,” he said. “We have a million more people on our voter rolls today than we had when I took office.”
The claims of voter suppression, he said, were “a farce” meant to distract from what he called “Ms. Abrams’s extreme agenda, including proposals he characterized as “a government takeover of health care.”
Ms. Abrams has called for Georgia to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, as other states have, and she defended the idea again Tuesday night, pointing out that Vice President Mike Pence had done so when he was governor of Indiana.
Mr. Kemp did not bring up an incident from 1992 that has figured in recent news coverage, in which Ms. Abrams burned the Georgia state flag at a protest. At the time, the state flag included the Confederate battle-flag symbol, a design that was approved by a defiantly segregationist state legislature in the 1950s; the flag has since been changed.
But a journalist on the panel asked Ms. Abrams about it. “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,” Ms. Abrams responded. “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,” she said, referring to Mr. Kemp’s tenure in the State Senate.
The format of the debate included a round of questions the candidates leveled at one another. Many of those questions were bank shots, seeking one rival’s view of an accusation leveled at the other, prompting rebuttals and re-rebuttals that sometimes seemed to briefly confuse even the moderator.
A second debate is scheduled for Nov. 4, two days before Election Day.
Though Mr. Metz’s chances of winning the race may be slim, if he can attract more than a smattering of votes, he could deny both Mr. Kemp and Ms. Abrams an outright majority and force them into a runoff in December. Mr. Metz, a former insurance industry worker, spoke of the myriad benefits of industrial hemp, saying that vote for him would be a protest vote against the “oligarchs running the planet.”