Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signaled Friday that Texas will send truckloads of migrants who just crossed the border from Mexico to more cities across the country, while Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke promised tighter gun restrictions as parents of children murdered in the Uvalde school massacre were waiting outside an auditorium where the only debate prior to the elections next November was held.

The pledges reflect how Abbott and O’Rourke are eager to push two entirely different issues just three weeks before early voting begins in a competitive Texas governor’s race that is one of the most closely watched — and costly — races. midterm elections.

As for abortion, which is now banned in the state, Abbott did not hesitate to enact a law that does not grant exceptions to rape victims at a time when the restrictions create obstacles for some Republicans who fear a backlash from the electorate.

But Abbott was more confident as he defended his clampdown on the Mexican border as the centerpiece of his campaign for a third term. Sharing the stage with O’Rourke for the first time, the governor boasted of a $4 billion operation that has included jails for migrants and buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, as well as criticizing President Joe Biden by name and as well as his rival sitting in front of him.

He did not say where Texas would send the next buses, a move that has shifted the focus on immigration, but he defended the destinations to some of the nation’s largest Democratic cities as a practical move, not a political one.

“There will be other cities in the future that will also receive migrants, because we will continue to send migrants because Joe Biden continues to allow more illegal immigrants to come to the state of Texas,” Abbott said.

O’Rourke called the mission a failure and attacked Abbott, saying the number of migrant intakes remains high despite the governor’s escalating actions in the past year.

“We have been in his government for eight years and this is what we have on our border,” said the Democrat.

The debate did not have a live audience, but outside the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus, parents of some of the 19 children killed in the Robb Elementary School massacre stood in support of O’Rourke after criticize Abbott for his rejection of new restrictions on gun ownership.

The presence of five families from Uvalde in Edinburg, a border region that has become the center stage for the November election, underscored lingering anger over one of the deadliest school shootings in the country’s history.

Polls show a race by a single-digit margin, but for O’Rourke the stakes were high in what remains an uphill battle to become the first Democrat to win the Texas governorship in nearly 30 years.

Abbott, a potential 2024 presidential hopeful who in his eight years as governor has lifted restrictions on guns in Texas and signed a law that eliminates background checks for concealed handgun carry, dismissed calls for a check. stricter on firearms since the Uvalde attack, in which two teachers were also killed.

The families of Uvalde have put at the top of their list of demands raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 years to acquire AR-15-type rifles like the one used by the attacker. Florida took that step weeks after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School thanks to a law signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.

Abbott has said raising the minimum age would be “unconstitutional” because of recent court rulings, an assessment that has been criticized by legal experts.

“No parent should lose a child and we want to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. We want an end to school shootings,” Abbott said of raising the age to purchase AR-15s. “But we can’t do it with false promises.”

Like many Democrats seeking office in the upcoming election, O’Rourke is seeking to exploit outrage over access to abortion services and mass shootings, issues that have energized voters elsewhere. But as Texas Democrats also know, those same issues have failed to carry them to victory in previous races.

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