In the competitive 9th District Congressional race, Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready debated for the first time Wednesday night.
The candidates clashed on social security, education and kneeling for the national anthem. And each candidate had talking points.
For McCready, it was reminding voters that he served in the Marine Corps and that would he put "country above party."
Harris was focused on trying to tie his opponent to the Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
“Because if Mr. McCready is elected he just represents a number that would move the Democrats towards a majority," Harris said. "If they become the majority, Nancy Pelosi has done the math. She will become the speaker.”
But there was one person neither candidate talked about much: President Trump.
For McCready to win, he will need a so-called blue wave to carry him to victory in the conservative-leaning district. A Civitas poll this week showed McCready ahead by four percentage points. But a recent New York Times poll shows him trailing Harris by five percentage points, well within the poll’s margin of error. That same poll showed 52 percent of respondents viewed Trump favorably. The district includes affluent south Charlotte suburbs and stretches through rural counties like Anson, Scotland and Robeson.
Harris, a social conservative, barely mentioned the president.
McCready said President Trump’s name once – to give him credit on trade.
“I do credit President Trump though with starting an important conversation, which is my view Democratic and Republican administrations have not stood up to China on trade," he said.
McCready criticized Harris for supporting a plan that would cut social security benefits. Harris said he would protect existing benefits, but said the program might have to change for future generations.
At one point, both candidates were asked about their views on public education, and specifically their views on teaching climate change and evolution.
Harris, a former pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, said he was a believer in public education, and said that George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law had problems. He did not talk about climate change or evolution.
“The No Child Left Behind had some real issues and problems ... But I do believe public schools play a key piece in what we’re doing,” Harris said.
McCready criticized Harris for previous statements saying he would abolish the Department of Education. But McCready did not discuss his views on climate change or evolution, or ask Harris what he thought.
“The Department of Education is funding our schools ... a lot of federal funds that we reserve for low-income students and students with disabilities,” McCready said.
In discussing immigration, McCready criticized the government’s practice earlier this year of separating children from their parents but did not mention the president’s involvement.
“No more ripping kids away from their parents at the border — that’s something that’s not consistent with our values," McCready said. "I’m someone who will be fighting for Republicans and Democrats to come together.
Harris reaffirmed his support for building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ending so-called “chain migration.” He did not talk about the separation of children from their parents.
“I just believe there is too much evidence that where pieces of the wall have been built the numbers have been staggering of how much lower they are of where people are coming across illegally," Harris said.
The subject of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem came up during the debate. The Carolina Panthers recently signed Eric Reid, who on Sunday became the team’s first player to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
“As a Marine Corps veteran I stand for the national anthem, I stand out of respect for our veterans, out of respect for our first responders and all who have served our country," McCready said. "At the same time, I’m a white guy. I have not faced discrimination. And I understand that someone next to me may kneel, and may do that because he or doesn’t feel heard.”
“There’s a place where we debate those and there’s a place where we carry those out," he said. "The flag of the United States of America is something that all Americans should appreciate, should honor and should respect.”
At the end of the debate, McCready said Harris is too “extreme” for the 9th District and Harris said he was the one true conservative choice for voters.
Early voting starts in North Carolina Oct. 17.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate start date of early voting in North Carolina. It's Oct. 17.