- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2016

DURHAM, N.C. — Fighting for his political life, Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said he cannot defend Donald Trump’s lewd remarks about women but feels the Democratic alternative, Hillary Clinton, is an unacceptable choice for president.

Mr. Burr, a two-term incumbent, said he trusts Mr. Trump’s assertion that he didn’t force himself on women, even if the mogul boasted on a leaked 2005 audiotape that his star power allows him to do what he wants with women — including grabbing their private parts.

“It’s not close for me. I’m going to support our nominee. I’m going to support Donald Trump,” Mr. Burr said from the debate podium in Research Triangle Park.

Mr. Burr said that only a few Senate Republicans have fled from Mr. Trump, even as an increasing number of women have gone public with stories of groping by the billionaire.

He also said he found Mrs. Clinton’s use of private email at the State Department and the related fallout “much more concerning.”

Mr. Burr, a former House member, faces an unexpectedly stiff challenge from former state Rep. Deborah K. Ross, a 53-year-old lawyer who stood tied with the Republican at 46 percent apiece in an NBC poll released Thursday. Ms. Ross trailed by 2 to 4 percentage points in other polls.

Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire revoked their support for Mr. Trump, saying his ribald comments went too far, even after a string of strident positions and comments. Mr. Burr, however, said he is willing to forgive Mr. Trump.

“I completely understand forgiveness,” Ms. Ross said. “You can forgive somebody, but you don’t trust that same person with the awesome responsibility of commander in chief. Donald Trump is not qualified to be president.”

Ms. Ross said Mr. Trump’s issues far outweighed foibles by her own party’s nominee, though she did say Mrs. Clinton’s use of private email was inappropriate.

Mr. Burr’s ability to withstand downward pressure from Mr. Trump will be critical for Senate Republicans hoping to defend their 54-46 majority.

Notably, Republicans are hoping to use Obamacare’s recent stumbles — premiums are rising and insurers are fleeing some states — against Democrats in this cycle.

Pressed about whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Ms. Ross said she would have.

“It is better than what we had,” she said.

Mr. Burr is trying to portray Ms. Ross, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, as soft on crime.

Pro-Burr partisans waved signs at passing motorists outside the debate venue. One sign said Ms. Ross moved to “protect predators” by opposing aspects of the state sex offender registry years ago.

Ms. Ross has said she pushed to tweak the policy and voted 18 times to update or strengthen the registry as a state lawmaker.

Her campaign is saying Mr. Burr has enriched himself and achieved little during his time in Washington.

Viewers tuning into the 4 p.m. news in the Raleigh-Durham area got a steady diet of TV spots that portrayed Mr. Burr as someone who spent “20 years in Washington serving himself” as a House member and then senator.

The senator, though, said his opponent has conflated his wife’s successful real estate career with money he made during his tenure in Congress.

Mr. Burr and Ms. Ross, who have no more scheduled debates, started the night by recognizing eastern North Carolina counties reeling from deadly flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

The night quickly turned to partisan matters, however, with moderator Jonathan Karl of ABC News pressing the candidates on Russia’s role in hacked emails, the Syrian crisis and a state law known as HB2, which requires people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the biological sex on their birth certificates.

State lawmakers enacted the law this year in response to a Charlotte ordinance that extended certain anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community, though opponents said it would make women’s bathrooms unsafe.

Ms. Ross called the state law discriminatory. Mr. Burr also said the law should be reversed, but only if Charlotte revisits its ordinance with greater input from the public.

Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republicans are dealing with a national backlash against the law. The NBA pulled its all-star game in February from Charlotte over the controversy, and corporations including PayPal have decided not to expand their business in the state.

“Their loss, in my estimation,” Mr. Burr said.

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