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In a Georgia Race Rife With Controversy, Warnock Is a Study in Restraint

ATLANTA — A stream of jaw-dropping allegations have saturated the Georgia Senate race for months. Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate, has been accused of having children he did not publicly acknowledge, lying to his own campaign about them, misrepresenting his professional success and, last week, paying for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion despite his public opposition to the procedure. He denies it all.

It’s a pileup that might embolden any opponent to unleash. But when asked last week about the latest hit to Mr. Walker, Senator Raphael Warnock, his Democratic rival, held back.

“We have seen some disturbing things. We’ve seen a disturbing pattern,” he said during a news conference on Friday, avoiding any predictions about how the claims against the Republican could affect his standing with voters. “It raises real questions about who’s actually ready to represent the people of Georgia in the United States Senate.”

Mr. Warnock, a pastor known for enlivening audiences on the stump and from the pulpit, has plenty of reasons to practice restraint these days. Despite the state’s Democratic shift in 2020, his victory in November could hinge on winning over moderate, even conservative-leaning voters who are tired of the Trump-era drama. For Mr. Warnock, that means casting Mr. Walker, a Trump-endorsed first-time candidate and former football star, as unqualified on account of his tumultuous personal history.

Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

While the headlines about Mr. Walker have been harsh, it is not at all clear that they will sink his Senate ambitions. Christian conservatives along with the Republican establishment in Georgia and Washington have stuck by him. Recent polls suggest the race remains close, though most show Mr. Warnock with a slight lead. A poll conducted by the University of Georgia and several state news outlets released Wednesday found that the senator led Mr. Walker by three points, with support from about 46 percent of likely voters. A candidate must clear 50 percent to win, and many Georgians are bracing for the race to go a runoff. A debate between the contenders on Friday night could also change its course.

One question hanging over that debate is whether Mr. Warnock himself will directly go on the attack. Until now, he has largely saved the vitriol for the airwaves. His campaign has run a barrage of highly personal negative advertising and Democratic-aligned groups are spending a combined $36 million on an anti-Walker push. The ads highlight accusations from Mr. Walker’s son of domestic abuse and an episode in which Mr. Walker held a gun to the temple of his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, and threatened to kill her. Mr. Walker has not denied the domestic violence allegations, saying that his behavior was a consequence of his struggles with mental illness at the time.

On the campaign trail, both candidates’ strategies sit in stark contrast.

While Mr. Walker often meanders in speeches, this week relaying a lesson about gratitude through the story of a bull jumping a fence, Mr. Warnock peppers his practiced stump speeches with calls to expand Medicaid. While national Republican figures like Rick Scott and Tom Cotton have come to Georgia to bolster the candidacy of their party’s nominee, Mr. Warnock still campaigns solo.

When asked if he would welcome a visit from any national Democrats, Mr. Warnock dodges the question.

“I’m focused not on who I’m campaigning with but who I’m campaigning for,” Mr. Warnock said during a recent news conference. “The people of Georgia hired me.”

Republicans have tied him to his party anyway. “Raphael Warnock, who campaigned with his puppies two years ago, has proven to be simply a lap dog for Joe Biden,” Mr. Cotton said on Tuesday to the crowd of more than 100 Walker supporters. “Herschel Walker will be a champion for the people of Georgia.”

Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Mr. Walker, too, has painted the senator as ultraprogressive and a champion of Mr. Biden’s policies. During a recent campaign stop in Smarr, Ga., Mr. Walker condemned Mr. Warnock’s support of the Inflation Reduction Act, calling the White House ceremony marking its passage over the summer a “party in Washington.”

“And as you’re looking at this, the split screen is the stock market is crashing,” Mr. Walker said to rousing applause. “What we’ve done right now is put the wrong person in Washington making the deals for us.”

Mr. Warnock has had to contend with personal challenges of his own, including a legal dispute with his ex-wife, Ouleye Ndoye, this spring. She sued him to change the terms of their child custody agreement after her move to a different state and asked to increase his monthly child support payments to reflect his higher salary since he became a senator.

During his first campaign in 2020, after an argument between the two, Ms. Ndoye said Mr. Warnock ran over her foot. The police did not find any physical damage to Ms. Ndoye’s foot, and Mr. Warnock was not charged. The incident has since been turned into an attack ad from a PAC affiliated with Mr. Walker, in which Ms. Ndoye calls Mr. Warnock “a great actor.”

Mr. Warnock’s campaign declined to comment on the claim, and Ms. Ndoye did not respond to a request for one.

Even when speaking to those most likely to support him, Mr. Warnock delivers his message carefully. At a recent Women for Warnock event in the event space of a West Atlanta community center, African American seniors said “amen” and cheered after nearly every point he made, vowing to vote early, bring friends to the polls and adorn their yards with Warnock signs as they hugged and took selfies with the senator. Some were members of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he is senior pastor.

Afterward, when asked during a news conference whether he had a message to voters who were nervous about Mr. Walker’s past but frustrated with Democrats’ policies, he said simply “I’m working for Georgia” and turned to a point about his effort to cap prescription drug costs.

Mr. Warnock rarely holds one-on-one interviews or deviates from practiced answers to reporters’ questions.

He has also focused his message to voters on his work with Republicans in Washington. In stump speeches and news conferences, Mr. Warnock mentions a provision in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that he and Mr. Cruz wrote to authorize funds that would connect a portion of the Interstate 14 highway to link Texas and Georgia. He also talks up legislation he co-sponsored with Mr. Rubio to address the high maternal mortality rates in both of their states.

Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

But Mr. Warnock’s cozying up to Republicans can come with risks. Mr. Warnock mentioned his partnership with Mr. Tuberville in a recent advertisement. But after Mr. Tuberville made racist comments in a speech at a Trump rally over the weekend, Mr. Warnock was asked on a liberal podcast to respond and labeled the comments “deeply disappointing.”

“Not only is this rhetoric inappropriate. Quite frankly, it’s dangerous,” he said, calling for Mr. Tuberville to apologize.

Mr. Warnock’s bipartisan message is meant to appeal to a broad swath of voters, his proponents say, giving Georgians a reason to vote for him — and not merely against Mr. Walker.

“He is walking a fine line. And it’s not just because he’s trying to distance himself from President Biden,” said Derrick Jackson, a Metro Atlanta state representative and vice chairman of the General Assembly’s Black caucus. “He’s talking about voting for something, instead of voting against something. And there’s an art to that.”

Monica Davis, a 62-year-old retiree from Johns Creek, an Atlanta suburb, is among those Mr. Warnock would like to win over. A self-described Republican, she said she planned to vote for Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, but was struggling with whether to vote for Mr. Walker.

“I believe he’s a candidate because he is a sports hero. I think there are a lot more qualified candidates,” she said, adding that she was “disappointed in the Republican Party that chose him.” She remained unsure of Mr. Warnock.

“I might just not vote on that particular category,” she said.

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