COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hours before a second scheduled debate between U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, event organizers were forced Friday to change the format, offering back-to-back, one-on-one interviews — rather than a debate — following a day of campaign clashes over COVID-19 that stirred doubts of whether the matchup would go on at all.
Graham and Harrison took part in individual interviews with two television journalists after Harrison threatened to tank the debate over concerns related to Graham's exposure to other GOP senators who recently tested positive for the virus. Harrison, an associate Democratic National Committee chairman, had demanded that Graham be tested before the event due to his recent meetings with other Republican senators who tested positive.
Graham, who took a test last week, refused, saying he had "taken the coronavirus threat to our state and nation very seriously," but had been told by the Senate physician no further testing was needed.
With COVID-19 concerns front and center for Friday's event, moderators asked both candidates if they supported a national mask mandate. Harrison said he backed the proposal, which Graham said he didn't see as enforceable. Harrison also called requiring coronavirus vaccines for school students "a possibility," while Graham said such issues should be left to states to decide.
"Let's push as hard as we can to get a vaccine to get this virus behind us," the Republican said.
Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was asked if testing were appropriate before confirmation hearings set to begin Monday for Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Noting he would adhere to federal requirements, Graham said those guidelines would dictate how the room would be set up and that testing every person would be unreasonable.
"I'm not going to live my life differently than you have to live yours," Graham said, referencing average Americans who work next to colleagues daily who haven't been tested.
"For those of you who work for a living, you can't do what Mr. Harrison has demanded tonight," he added.
As for Barrett's nomination, Graham committed to her confirmation, noting he also had previously supported two of former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees because he saw them as qualified.
"If you're looking for somebody to support conservative judges, I am your guy," Graham said. "If you're looking for somebody to reach across the aisle, I have done it."
During his turn discussing the upcoming hearings, Harrison decried what he described as a rushed process that, as other Democrats have demanded, should wait until after the presidential election.
"We shouldn't even be talking about confirmation hearings," Harrison said, pointing out Graham's 2018 comments that election-year appointments shouldn't even be taken up. "Now he is going against his word and against the precedent that has been set."
To close out each segment, the candidates were asked different questions on social issues. Harrison described himself as supporting abortion rights and said those decisions should be "between a woman, her doctor and her God."
Asked if he supported same-sex marriage, Graham said he accepted the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the matter and "will honor the law of the land."
When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to reduce and redirect some government funding for police, Harrison noted that, while he knows people in the movement, he hasn't met with them as a candidate, and doesn't support some of their policies.
"I don't believe in the 'defunding the police' effort, but I do believe in strengthening the relationship between police and communities," Harrison said.
When asked why he hadn't met with people in the movement, Harrison said they had not reached out to him or his campaign.
A third debate is scheduled for later this month, although the confirmation hearings may complicate that schedule.
The race between Graham and Harrison has tightened, with surveys showing the candidates in a dead heat, and both campaigns raising more than $30 million apiece — also aided by tens of millions in additional spending from outside groups.
Trump carried South Carolina by double digits over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Republicans control both legislative chambers, all statewide offices and most of the state's congressional seats. South Carolina is assumed to be safely in his reelection column.