At a political forum Thursday night, one incumbent left hurriedly after racing through a brisk opening statement, the first public barbs were thrown in the clerk of courts race and a candidate for county sheriff all but ignored a moderator's questions, instead posing his own queries to the race's frontrunner.

From the outset, pertinent discussion about local issues was overshadowed by other events. Many in the audience of the forum, sponsored by the Prince William County Bar Association, were already distracted when candidates for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates debated such matters as school tax credits, violence in the schools and Northern Virginia transportation problems.

The forum began with opening statements from candidates for the 29th District state Senate seat and the 13th District House seat. Then Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-District 51) took to the podium and raced through her two-minute opening speech, touting her "tireless work" to educate and empower residents. She apologized for having to run to a previously scheduled fund-raising event and then headed straight for the door, skipping out on two rounds of questions, including those from audience members.

McQuigg's challenger, Democrat Virginia M. Stephens, was left to answer questions on her own, without rebuttal. She ultimately criticized the General Assembly for taking more money from Northern Virginia than it sends back. She also challenged McQuigg's statement that the delegate is "getting it done" on the issue of transportation, saying that it will take effective leadership to end the "gridlock" that the region faces.

In the clerk of courts race, incumbent David C. Mabie (R) came out of the gates with a blistering attack on his opponent, Joyce M. Sowards (D), calling her closed-door criticisms of a recent audit report unfounded and launching into a personal confrontation. Mabie said that Sowards's attacks during a private debate last week were motivated by a personal conflict between the two candidates.

"Five years ago this lady was let go by me, and now she wants to get a chunk out of my backside," Mabie said Thursday, referring to his firing Sowards for undisclosed reasons. "I feel confident I made the right decision for the department, for the court and for the community."

Sowards did not counter Mabie's statements. Instead she said that her 26 years of experience in the Circuit Court Clerk's Office shows her "proven leadership" and makes her more qualified for the job.

When asked what changes she would make to the office if elected, Sowards began her answer by saying she would interview staff members for input. She then looked out to the audience and said that she had lost her train of thought; she did not continue.

Moments later, Mabie unveiled a "million-dollar computer project" that he said he will tackle if elected, a project that aims to computerize the county's records system.

The debate between candidates for sheriff focused mostly on Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III's first term and his goals for a second term. Stoffregen, a Democrat, said he would center a second term on increased law enforcement and technological advances for the Sheriff's Department. Challenger Todd L. McEwen (I) took about 15 seconds for his opening statement and deflected two of three questions posed to him by asking unrelated questions of his own to Stoffregen.

McEwen, who suggested that courthouse security needs to be beefed up with an alarm system, essentially questioned Stoffregen on his policies toward reserve deputies, asking whether reservists "pay for their badge and donate their time." He then waved to the audience.

Stoffregen called his reserve deputies "essential" to the operation of the department, then stepped from the podium to boisterous applause.

Challenger A.D. "Tony" Dominguez (I) said that he generally supported Stoffregen's policies and that his plans for the office would rely on assessments he said he would make in his first days on the job. Dominguez said he is "just a simple citizen, a citizen just like you."

"I want to bring back integrity and accountability to the sheriff's office," Dominguez said, without pointing to any specific problems. "The bigotry, innuendo and slander of the past do not justify bigotry, innuendo and slander in the future."

Aside from the irregular events during the forum, which was attended by local politicians, staff members of the Circuit Court Clerk's Office and sheriff's deputies, Sen. Charles J. Colgan (R-District 29) and challenger Robert S. FitzSimmonds III (R) entered into a lively debate about the use of tax credits for students who wish to attend private schools.

They also went back and forth on the issue of seniority, which Colgan touts as his strongest asset. FitzSimmonds, who said that Colgan's seniority could become a moot point in a Republican-controlled state Senate, said he supports tax credits as a way to leave funds in the public schools while reducing class size. Colgan said that tax credits would sap public schools of necessary resources and have untold negative effects.

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-District 13) and challenger Denise M. Oppenhagen (D) also traded blows on the private school tax credit issue. Oppenhagen said such a measure would essentially be "giving up on our public schools." Marshall said the only way to reduce violence in public schools is to "bring back character education" through a better moral structure.

Oppenhagen also lashed at Marshall on the right-to-die issue, saying firmly that the government has no right to interfere in private matters. Marshall, who strongly opposed allowing family members to remove Hugh Finn's feeding tube in the much-publicized court battle, said he stands by his previous actions.