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The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez, Pool, Associated Press
Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, left, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott prepare to answer questions during the Rio Grande Valley Gubernatorial Debate Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance in Edinburg, Texas. The debate was the first of two scheduled before the November election.

EDINBURG, Texas — Democrat Wendy Davis came out swinging against Republican Greg Abbott over classroom funding and women in their first debate Friday night, but uncomfortably skirted whether she supported President Barack Obama.

Still, no real fireworks livened up a mostly tepid gubernatorial debate in the Rio Grande Valley — a backdrop that made border security a major topic. Davis needs to gain ground fast with less than six weeks until Election Day, and she turned to face Abbott when delivering her sharpest barbs.

But Abbott played it safe in this final stretch of a costly race that the longtime Texas attorney general has led from the start. He stayed content to not engage Davis and put her in the toughest spot not with any answer, but with a question.

"Do you regret voting for Barack Obama?" Abbott asked.

Davis seemed to laugh nervously and didn't answer. She instead digressed, saying she was focused on the race.

The Fort Worth state senator stuck to public school cuts and women to lob her toughest attacks. Abbott's office continues to defend in court $5.4 billion in funding cuts to Texas schools that a state judge found unconstitutional, and Davis again questioned why he won't let the suit drop.

"That's not liberal, that's not conservative, it's just dumb," said Davis, looking at her opponent. Abbott said he's bound by his office to continue to fight.

This is the first open Texas governor's race since 1990, when Ann Richards became the last female and Democrat to win the job. Democrats have made comparisons to Richards pulling off a late comeback that year, but time for Davis is quickly running out.

She has unleashed rounds of TV attack ads statewide by tapping more than $27 million in fundraising — a record for a Texas Democrat. A memoir Davis recently published revealed an abortion she had in the 1990s for medical reasons, and on the campaign trail, she has better harnessed the tenacity that first made her famous during her nearly 13-hour filibuster last year.

But Abbott still remains a big favorite, entering the final stretch with a 3-to-1 edge in cash to spend and double-digit polling leads.

Hours before the debate, Davis got a pep talk of sorts from the White House.

Vice President Joe Biden said "do not give up on that race" at a Democratic National Committee event in Washington. Hillary Rodham Clinton also mentioned Davis among a slate of female candidates this election year "who give me hope" while speaking at the same Women's Leadership Forum.

"If you have an extra dollar, give it to Wendy Davis. We're going to win that race," Biden said.

Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber .