RALEIGH, N.C. -- Friday night, after months and millions spent on TV ads, Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley finally go face-to-face. It's the only scheduled debate in the race to fill North Carolina's soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat. Party control in the chamber hangs in the balance -- and the race is a dead heat.
"It doesn't. And that's why this debate is important," Meredith College political science professor David McLennan told ABC 11
The latest polling from five thirty eight is well within the margin of error. Budd leads Beasley by just seven tenths of a point: Budd - 44.7% / Beasley- 44%
"And when you have a race like that with how important this race is to perhaps the control of the U.S Senate, even a debate that's watched by a relatively small number of people is important."
McLennan expects Budd to hit Beasley on the economy -- tying her to President Joe Biden's low North Carolina approval rating and voters' economic anxieties...
The newest ABC News poll points to 74 percent of Americans who think the economy is in bad shape.
McLennan predicts Beasley will challenge Budd on abortion rights -- pinning Budd to his bill in the U.S. House that would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The latest Meredith Poll shows just over 10 percent of North Carolinians support the ban.
"I think they need to communicate a vision," McLennan said about Budd and Beasley need to accomplish at the debate. "It's not just about attack ads and talking points. It's where are North Carolinians gonna be two years from now?"
Friday night is the Budd or Beasley has debated anyone since the start of their senate campaigns.
"We know that North Carolina is going to be a very close race, a percentage point or two or three. And so the debate is an opportunity for people to see them side by side and could swing enough voters to swing it one way or the other," McLennan said.
While Beasley's campaign has outraised Budd's, national Republicans have already spent over $20 million on advertising opposing Beasley.
Democrats in Washington haven't been as generous in fighting Budd.
The major-party candidates to succeed retiring North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr parried over inflation, abortion and election integrity Friday night in what's expected to be their only debate.
Beasley and Budd debated nearly an hour of questions.
Democratic hopes this time are in Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who would be the first Black senator for North Carolina if elected.
Budd, a gun shop and range owner first elected to Congress in 2016, relied heavily of President Donald Trump's endorsement and outside spending to win the Republican primary in May. Budd welcomed Trump again to the state for a rally two weeks ago.
Beasley, who came out quickly as an aggressor in the debate, said Trump "represents the most extremist policies and ideology ... the reality is Congressman Budd has aligned himself with somebody who is truly extremist in this race, and that's a reflection on him."
Budd defended accepting Trump's help, pointing to the low unemployment and low inflation during the former president's term in office and Trump's victories in North Carolina in 2016 and 2020 - compared with higher inflation today.
While Beasley's campaign has outraised Budd throughout the campaign entering the summer, national Senate Republican groups have neutralized that advantage already spending over $26 million against her, according to campaign reports. Beasley's supporters hoped her debate performance Friday will attract more outside help.
Beasley, who has tried to attract votes from rural areas that have shifted to the right, said Budd has repeatedly voted against the needs of North Carolina residents. She says that includes opposing bills that would have capped the cost of insulin for seniors and allowed the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare.
Budd and Beasley have tried to portray themselves as an ally of law enforcement, although Budd has received the lion's share of endorsement from groups representing troopers, police officers and border patrol agents.
Budd has declined to participate in any of the four GOP primary debates. In the Democratic primary, the field had been cleared of Beasley's leading competitors during the last five months of the race.
The Libertarian and Green party candidates didn't participate in Friday's debate.