Research Triangle Park, N.C. — Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross talked as much about the presidential candidates as themselves Thursday night during their only debate before the Nov. 8 election.
The hour-long debate, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, was less testy than Tuesday's debate between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, but Burr and Ross used the forum to further define the positions that have been laid out in countless political ads in recent months.
Debate moderator Jonathan Karl of ABC News set the tone for the debate, however, with an opening question about the weaknesses of presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Ross said she trusts Clinton to be commander-in-chief "on Day 1," while Trump is "singularly unqualified" for the position, adding that Burr's decision to continue backing Trump in the wake of his recent comments about groping women "shows a lack of judgment."
"I think a lack of judgment is a decision to put top-secret and special-access programs on an unsecured server where our enemies can access it," Burr said, referring to Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state. "I think bad judgment is when one chooses to lie about emails to the American people."
Burr said he wouldn't defend Trump's statements or actions, but he feels more comfortable with him as president than Clinton.
"I have concerns about both candidates. I have more concerns about Hillary Clinton because of her lack of judgment," he said.
"Sen. Burr has toed the party line even when Donald Trump has crossed the line," Ross quipped.
Trump also came up later in the debate during a question about confronting Russian aggression and its hacking of U.S. computer systems.
"There are no ballot boxes connected to the Internet," Burr said, dismissing the suggestion that Russian hacking is aimed at getting Trump elected.
Ross said the U.S. needs to get tough with Russia, and Trump would be ill-suited to carry out such a policy.
"He is enamored of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," she said. "Sen. Burr ... trusts Donald Trump to be president and the main person who negotiates with the Russians. That is simply not making us safe."
In response to a question about bipartisanship, Ross said she would be eager to work with Trump, if both are elected, on upgrading infrastructure across the U.S. For his part, Burr had a laundry list of issues he would work on with Clinton as president, from national security to changes to the Affordable Care Act, noting that he worked with her when she was in the Senate.
In between presidential politics, Burr and Ross took on topics that have become the focus on various campaign ads, as well as issues that the Senate must confront, such as immigration reform and foreign policy.
Burr's campaign and outside groups have repeatedly hammered Ross for positions she took on sex offender registries while serving as state president of the American Civil Liberties Union two decades ago.
"That's politics," Ross said of the notion that she wants to protect sexual predators more than victims.
She said she has upgraded North Carolina's sex offender registry numerous times and said Burr voted against the Violence Against Women Act and legislation that would have funded the federal sex offender registry.
"I'll put my record of protecting women and children up against his any day of the week," she said.
"Her words and her actions don't support her claims," Burr responded.
Meanwhile, Ross' campaign and her supporters have claimed that Burr has become an out-of-touch Washington politician during his 22 years in Congress and that he has used his position to enrich himself.
"It's lie," Burr said of the allegation, and he angrily demanded that Ross apologize to his wife, who he said is responsible for the family's growing wealth in recent years because of the success of her real estate business.
"What Ms. Ross did was she attacked my wife," he said. "I find it disgusting that anyone would question her success."
Ross said Burr was one of only three senators to vote against legislation that would have barred insider trading among members of Congress. Burr said insider trading is already illegal, so the legislation was unnecessary.
On immigration, Burr said he couldn't support any plan for amnesty for anyone who comes into the U.S. illegally, while Ross said she would have supported a bipartisan reform plan crafted three years ago.
On Syria, Ross called for no-fly zones, air strikes and U.S. ground forces to fight Islamic State forces and protect civilians, while Burr said U.S. allies in the Middle East could provide safe zones for civilians without the need for American troops.
"This is genocide, and America has never stood by and watched genocide and not reacted," he said.
A notable subject that wasn't addressed in the debate was confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court justices, which is the sole province of the Senate.