EDINBURG, Texas (KTRK) -- Gov. Greg Abbott will square off with Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke on Friday in what is likely the first and only debate between the two candidates.
The event, which is closed off to the public, starts at 7 p.m. at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, just less than 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Professor Mark Jones, who teaches political science at Rice University, explains it was Gov. Abbott who decided on the logistics of the debate. He believes everything from the date and location of the event were strategic by his campaign.
"Abbott only agreed to this in order to blunt criticism that he was afraid to debate O'Rourke. He's going to do the one-and-done and get it out of the way. The fact that its occurring on a Friday night down in the valley outside of the major media markets will downplay any sort of effect it has in terms of coverage," Jones said. "Texans are occupied with other activities, rather than watching a political debate that's likely to be restricted to only the most diehard political waters instead of the general public."
Since polls show that O'Rourke is down by seven to 10 points, this is likely one of his last-ditch efforts to try and sway voters away from the governor. He held a press conference six hours before the debate with the families impacted by the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, who traveled nearly 300 miles on a 10-hour bus ride to be in Edinburg.
Even though they would not be able to sit in on the debate, which is being held in a facility with hundreds of seats, the victims' family members said it was still important for them to travel to the Rio Grande Valley. They continued to urge Gov. Abbott to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase assault rifles in the state from 18 to 21 years old.
ABC13 asked the Uvalde parents how they feel about not being able to sit in the same room as the governor today and what they'll be listening for during the debate.
"It's frustrating and it's extremely disrespectful not to have us present. As for answers, he knows what we've asked. He refuses to act. Honestly, we'll just add this to the long list of things that he isn't going to do," Kimberly Rubio, mother to Lexi Rubio, said.
Gov. Abbott has previously said that he believes raising the minimum age of purchasing assault rifles is not constitutional and that it would not pass in the Texas legislature. The governor did not have any press availability before the debate and it is not clear whether he will speak to media after the event.
Experts anticipate O'Rourke will likely push to make abortion and gun reform the focus of the debate, especially with the Uvalde mass school shooting still so fresh in everyone's minds.
Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott will likely bring up immigration as one of the main talking points of the debate, as it's a winning issue for him. Jones believes that's why Abbott chose the Rio Grande Valley as the location for the debate, since polls show that most Texas voters agree with him when it comes to his border policies.
Danny Diaz, political director of LUPE Votes, said he was disappointed in Abbott's decision to hold the debate in Hidalgo County, believing it was a political stunt.
"The only time Gov. Abbott comes here is for a photo op or invite other Republicans from other states to take pictures by the border wall. He'll have these private town halls with one side of the political spectrum and turn it into a show about why immigrants are bad and why the border is a disaster," Diaz said.
"People here in the Rio Grande Valley have felt misrepresented in politics and government. This is a beautiful community and we want to take on the lies that this community is crime ridden or dangerous," Diaz said.
Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O'Rourke invested big this month in the Hispanic and Latino vote, spending a combined $8 million in Spanish language political ads, the most ever in a Texas gubernatorial race, according to ABC13's content partner, the Houston Chronicle.
Diaz's organization has been working throughout the election season to boost votership numbers in South Texas. What he found is that the Spanish-speaking population is one of the most persuadable votes, with back-and-forth surges between the Democratic and Republican parties.
"So, we see these swings, and it's just an indication is that people are, aren't loyal to a political party. They identify as Latinos, Mexican-Americans, bilingual, from the border, and we're very proud of that. But if you ask somebody if they're a proud Democrat or Republican, it's going to be a rare occasion when you find somebody that's a proud member of a specific political party down here," Diaz said.