US Senate candidates Burr, Ross spar over Donald Trump’s words and actions

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross participate in a live televised debate hosted by Jonathan Karl of ABC News at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross participate in a live televised debate hosted by Jonathan Karl of ABC News at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool) AP

Donald Trump’s latest controversies were a major topic as U.S. Senate candidates Deborah Ross and Richard Burr faced off in a televised debate Thursday night.

Ross, a former Democratic state legislator from Raleigh and former ACLU leader, criticized Burr for continuing to endorse the Republican presidential nominee despite allegations that he sexually assaulted a number of women.

“It’s very disturbing to me,” she said. “Sen. Burr has stuck by Donald Trump through all of this, and I think that shows a lack of judgment. Sen. Burr has toed the party line even when Donald Trump has crossed the line.”

Burr, a Republican who’s been in Congress for 22 years and leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he condemns Trump’s comments on a leaked tape from 2005 but has forgiven the presidential candidate.

“If in fact he did it,” Burr said of Trump’s boasts on the tape, “that would be sexual assault. I take him at his word that he didn’t do it.”

Asked about whether Trump is qualified to handle the country’s nuclear codes, Burr said he has concerns about both presidential candidates on that issue.

“I have more concerns about Hillary Clinton because of her lack of judgment, because of the way she’s handled her official business as secretary of state,” he said.

After the debate, Burr told reporters that he’d prefer to take the focus of the race off Trump, who Ross frequently mentioned throughout the event.

“We can make this race about Donald Trump or we can make it about a U.S. Senate campaign,” he said. “My statement’s going to stand on Trump. And if there’s some revelation that changes my ability to support him, I will assure you that you will be the first to know.”

Burr hammered Ross on the topic of sex offender registries – as his campaign has done for several months.

“The one thing that we need is transparency,” he said, stressing the need for a registry. “Government’s not going to protect your children; it’s going to be parents in the community.”

In a memo Ross wrote to American Civil Liberties Union members while leading the group’s North Carolina chapter in the 1990s, she said the registry “would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism.”

Ross said it’s wrong to claim she opposed the registry. “Raising issues isn’t the same thing as opposing the bill,” Ross said. “The fact is that I voted 18 times to strengthen and update the sex offender registry. I’ll put my record of protecting women and children up against his any day of the week.”

Overall, the candidates were more restrained than the candidates for governor who debated two nights earlier. The Senate debate was largely devoid of interruptions and heated moments.

In other highlights:

On Burr’s wealth: Burr rebutted a claim made in a recent TV ad that his personal wealth “increased over 500 percent since he’s been in Congress.”

“It’s a lie,” Burr said, noting that the figure appears to be based on his wife’s success with a real estate business. “What Mrs. Ross did was she attacked my wife.”

Ross responded that she has “utmost respect for your wife” but pointed to Burr’s votes to increase his own pay and his vote against banning insider trading by members of Congress.

Burr defended the latter vote, saying the practice was already illegal for anyone, including Congress. “North Carolinians didn’t send me to Congress to duplicate existing law.”

On police relations following deadly shootings: Burr said police must “reach out to neighborhoods that feel disenfranchised.”

Asked if there’s racial bias in law enforcement, Burr said it depends on the department and the city. “In Charlotte, it was African-American officers,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re going to show bias.”

Ross says she’s a supporter of community policing, but said Burr voted against that approach.

“We need to have law enforcement and the African-American community work together for the safety of everybody.”

On House Bill 2: Asked if transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, Burr said “I don’t think so.”

But he said North Carolina’s HB2 shouldn’t remain law in its current form. “It’s my hope ... that the General Assembly will reverse themselves and the Charlotte City Council will reverse themselves,” he said, referring to the local law protecting LGBT rights that HB2 overturned.

Ross said HB2 should be repealed to stop major economic losses, and she said Burr was wrong to say that the topic wasn’t a federal issue.

On Syria: Ross said “a good first step” in Syria would be the creation of a no-fly zone, a position Burr agreed with.

Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s been lobbying for three years to set up “safe zones” to protect civilians in Syria, but said the Obama administration told him that wouldn’t be possible. “America has never stood aside and allowed genocide to happen.”

Burr argued that ground troops “should be on the table” as an option to address threats from the Islamic State in the region.

On immigration: Burr took a hard line on immigration, saying “there’s no pathway that I can support that provides amnesty to anybody who came here illegally.”

Ross said Congress has failed to address a “broken” immigration system and said she would have supported the 2013 bipartisan reform plan that failed to get action from the House. But she declined to say whether she would have voted for a recent state law banning “sanctuary cities” where some immigration laws aren’t enforced.

“I care about the safety and security of North Carolina and the American people,” she told reporters after the debate. “And I believe it’s the federal government’s job to decide on these issues.”

The stakes for Ross and Burr were high: Polls show the race tightening in recent weeks, with Ross rapidly making up for her lack of name recognition early in the campaign.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday found the two candidates tied with 46 percent of likely voters each. Two other polls released Thursday gave Burr a slight lead, and he led the RealClearPolitics polling average by 1.9 percentage points.

While the 2014 Senate race included three televised debates, Thursday’s event is the only scheduled face-off between Burr and Ross.

In June and again in August, Ross called on the Burr campaign to agree to a total of four debates, although she did not identify her preferred venues. Her campaign says she’d still like to add more debates.

The Burr campaign decided early on that the senator would only agree to one debate, due in part to his decision not to campaign heavily until Congress adjourned this month.

Libertarian Senate candidate Sean Haugh, who was included in one of the three debates in 2014, wasn’t allowed to participate Thursday. He said on Twitter he planned to spend the evening at his job delivering pizzas.

The debate was sponsored by the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and held at the studios of UNC-TV in Research Triangle Park. UNC-TV plans to make video of the event available for streaming on its website.

The final debate of North Carolina’s statewide races is set for next Tuesday when all three candidates for governor will face off on WRAL.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter