- Associated Press - Friday, September 19, 2014

McALLEN, Texas (AP) - For the first time in nearly a decade, Texas voters will be able to watch a debate between the state’s gubernatorial candidates.

The stakes and viewership aren’t expected to be high when Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis meet for the event in McAllen. The debate airs at 6 p.m., just before hundreds of high school football games kickoff, and neither candidate has been prone to missteps.

Still, it could deliver some surprises, and it’s the most talked-about debate in Texas since Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment during his unsuccessful 2012 presidential run.

Some things to watch for during the debate:

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DAVIS THE AGGRESSOR

Abbott only needs to play it safe. With six weeks until Election Day, the longtime Texas attorney general has comfortable leads in both polls and campaign money.

Davis, whose run was launched by her 2013 filibuster over new Texas abortion restrictions, is at her best when she takes on that fighter persona. Look for the underdog to push the bounds of the question-and-answer format and confront Abbott in hopes of knocking him off-script and putting him on the defensive.

Perry avoided such a situation altogether in 2010, by refusing to debate his Democratic challenger. That makes this the first general-election gubernatorial debate in Texas since 2006.

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HISPANICS AND THE BORDER

This is the first gubernatorial debate on the Texas border since then-Gov. George W. Bush went to El Paso in 1998. The backdrop is significant.

The Rio Grande Valley is predominantly Hispanic, and Abbott has intensely courted the fast-growing Hispanic population that has been drifting from the GOP. Abbott’s wife, Cecilia, would be the first Latina first lady of Texas, and Abbott has used his family to send a message that he understands Hispanic values and culture.

But the border is a Democratic stronghold where many residents are critical of Republican measures that Abbott has supported. Those include the recent deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops in response to a surge of unaccompanied minors coming across the border. Abbott will likely be pressed to again defend his support on that issue.

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WOMEN’S ISSUES

How Abbott handles women’s issues in front of a female challenger will be a delicate task. Davis recently revealed having an abortion for medical reasons in a new memoir, and she has blasted Abbott over equal pay in his office and siding against a rape victim’s lawsuit while he served on the Texas Supreme Court.

Abbott is anti-abortion, and Republican women’s groups have sprung up against Davis, who must make gains among suburban women to win. How Abbott navigates the sensitive issues face-to-face with Davis will be closely watched.

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WHAT ABOUT POLICY?

Between ethics attacks and mudslinging during the campaign, education has been the dominant policy issue. Davis wants universal pre-kindergarten, while Abbott is proposing a more limited expansion.

Both candidates also could get their most high-profile platforms yet to say how they’ll fix the state’s congested highways and health care coverage in a state where 1 in 4 residents are uninsured.

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WHAT’ NEXT?

The next and final debate is Sept. 30, a Tuesday, in Dallas. Election Day is Nov. 4.

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