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In this screengrab from video, candidates for New York’s 3rd congressional district Mazi Pilip and Tom Suozzi square off at a town hall-style debate hosted by News 12’s Rich Barrabi just days before the special election for George Santos’ vacant House seat on February 8. News 12 Long Island

Democratic former Rep. Tom Suozzi and Republican Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip squared off Thursday night in the first and only debate of their race to replace disgraced former Rep. George Santos — a heated affair that underscored the contest’s national stakes.

Santos himself was largely an afterthought as issues such as immigration and abortion – which have roiled New York’s 3rd Congressional District along with the rest of the country – dominated the debate.

The pair, along with News 12 anchor Rich Barrabi and the town hall-style audience, steered clear of the Santos fiasco that gripped the district for the better part of last year.

Here are the main takeaways:

Immigration takes center stage: Pilip accused Suozzi of “opening the border” and demanded that he “own” the issue, pointing to his past criticism of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and support for sanctuary cities.

Suozzi, a moderate Democrat and former member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, rejected the charge, accusing Pilip of misleading the public about his record – which included a bipartisan immigration reform attempt with former GOP Rep. Peter King – and deriding her as a big talker with no coherent plan to fix the problem.

Suozzi touts his brand: Suozzi has held office on Long Island for most of the three decades since he was first elected mayor of Glen Cove, on Long Island’s North Shore, in 1993. During the debate, he frequently questioned Pilip’s qualifications and ability to make legislation move on Capitol Hill while also leaning on his well-honed brand to fend off a flurry of attacks from Pilip, who has sought to paint him as a leftist.

Pilip at times became frustrated, and at one point, during an exchange over abortion, took a step toward Suozzi’s lectern. The Democrat responded with a deep-cut New York political reference – joking that she was channeling former Senate candidate Rick Lazio, who infamously infringed on then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s turf during a 2000 campaign debate.

Questions about abortion: Another fiery exchange between the candidates came on the issue of abortion. Pilip accused Suozzi of lying about her stance and Suozzi pushed her to answer whether she’d vote to codify abortion rights protections.

What about George?: Pilip, who had initially endorsed Santos and later called for his resignation, acknowledged that the Santos scandal was “frustrating” and said that the former congressman “lied to all of us.” She swore to the accuracy of her resume, while Suozzi insisted he’s an “open book” and has been “examined over and over again.”

Suozzi, however, used the opportunity to criticize Pilip for not participating in more debates, as this was their first, arguing that debates provide voters a chance to “fully vet the candidates and understand what they stand for, clear as day.”

Read more on the special election debate here.

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