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Harrison threatens to withdraw from Senate debate after Graham rejects call for COVID test

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COLUMBIA — Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison is threatening to withdraw from South Carolina's second U.S. Senate race debate Friday night against Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham after the senator rejected a demand that he take another coronavirus test.

In a statement Thursday evening, Harrison said that he and the moderators for Friday's debate hosted by television station WSPA in Spartanburg had agreed to take a COVID-19 test before the debate, and he called on Graham to do the same.

"Of course, the upcoming debates can be held, and held safely," Harrison said. "But if Sen. Graham will not take a coronavirus test, I cannot responsibly debate in person tomorrow night and allow politics to put my family, my campaign staff, Sen. Graham’s staff, and members of the media at unnecessary risk."

Graham responded by noting that Harrison had not made a similar testing demand for reporters at The Post and Courier before an interview Wednesday for the newspaper's Pints & Politics series.

"The only difference between then and now is Mr. Harrison faced hard questions, and his answers confirmed what we already knew: Jaime Harrison is too liberal for South Carolina," Graham said.

Graham said he would follow the guidance of his doctors, not his political opponent, and insisted he had "taken the coronavirus threat to our state and nation very seriously."

"What has changed is not the seriousness of coronavirus — what has changed is the threat Mr. Harrison faces from scrutiny," Graham said. "Whether Mr. Harrison attends tomorrow’s debate is his decision, not mine. I will be there."

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A Harrison campaign spokesman did not respond to request for comment about whether the former state Democratic Party chairman would go forward with pulling out from the debate after Graham denied his request.

But in a follow-up statement, Harrison said the test "would make it safer for the dozens of hard working people who are putting this event together for the good of the voters."

"This isn't about anyone’s campaign, it’s about keeping people safe — and if Senator Graham is unwilling to do that, he needs to explain why," Harrison said.

The debate Friday night is set to be the second of three debates between the two candidates before the Nov. 3 election. None of the debates will allow live audiences in keeping with recommendations from health experts about preventing the spread of the virus.

The rules that the campaigns previously agreed to for Friday night's debate already included a requirement that the candidates have their temperature taken before entering the studio, Graham's campaign spokesman said.

In the first debate last week in Columbia, Harrison and Graham sparred over the nation's coronavirus response, the Supreme Court and a number of other policy issues. Harrison put up Plexiglas next to his podium as an added precaution for that debate, a step that Graham did not take.

President Donald Trump and several Republican senators, including some who had been in a committee meeting with Graham, tested positive for the coronavirus last week. But Graham and his staff took a coronavirus test last Friday and they all reported that the results had come back negative.

Graham's campaign spokesman said the physician who oversaw the senator's test last week and the attending physician of the U.S. Congress told him that he did not require a quarantine or additional testing and could return to normal activities. The senator also tweeted a note from the attending physician saying he does not require coronavirus testing.

Polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between the candidates in a state that has not seen a Democrat win a U.S. Senate race since 1998. Election forecasters have recently shifted their predictions from favoring Graham to a "toss up" in which either candidate may come out on top.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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