ON THE TWO previous occasions that Virginia's major gubernatorial candidates skirmished face to face, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine -- the intellectually nimbler, more articulate of the pair -- manhandled Republican Jerry W. Kilgore. Yesterday, at their first official debate, Mr. Kilgore, the former attorney general, struck back. Well prepared, at ease with numbing, often sterile repetition ("I trust the people -- always have, always will") and determined to take the offensive from his opening remarks, Mr. Kilgore smacked Mr. Kaine for taking positions that seem to straddle the death penalty, taxes and guns, among other issues. Mr. Kaine, perhaps wary of seeming like a bully, was forthright, defending his record and pointing out that the Republican is hardly a paragon of consistency. But the mismatch that Democrats had hoped for, and Republicans had feared, did not materialize. Call it a draw, with the psychological edge to Mr. Kilgore.

Sadly, the event, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association, was something of a stealth debate. It was bad enough that it took place on a midsummer weekend at midmorning and was not televised live. Moreover, at Mr. Kilgore's insistence, the two candidates agreed to make no external use whatsoever of any audio or video footage from their encounter; they may not use it either in their ads or on their Web sites. While media outlets may certainly broadcast whatever snippets they see fit, the Kaine-Kilgore matchup seemed more of a dress rehearsal for other clashes this fall -- we hope there will be more than just the one scheduled for Sept. 13 -- than a defining moment in the campaign.

Still, there were telling themes and moments yesterday. As he has done on the stump and in his campaign literature, Mr. Kilgore made effective use of Mr. Kaine's attempts to moderate his liberal record -- thereby appearing inconsistent -- as he appeals to Virginia's generally conservative electorate. He struck a populist chord by pledging that he would oppose any tax increase unless voters signed off on it in a referendum; hence his "I trust the people" refrain. Mr. Kaine countered, with reason, that such government-by-referendum simply avoids the tough calls: it's an abdication of leadership. Still, with voters grumbling about a rising tax burden, Mr. Kilgore's message is designed to solidify his conservative base, and it may well work.

Mr. Kaine counterattacked by pointing out that his rival opposed the signal achievement of the incumbent governor, Democrat Mark R. Warner (D), who shored up the state's shaky finances and public education system last year with his sweeping tax increase. Here he has Mr. Kilgore's number. For while the Republican is resolutely against higher taxes, he has offered a laundry list of proposals, promises and programs that all depend on the revenue generated by Mr. Warner's tax increase, and then some. Mr. Kilgore has often insisted that he is ideologically closer to Virginia's popular governor than is Mr. Kaine. Yesterday, by hammering away at Mr. Kilgore's irresponsible anti-tax orthodoxy, Mr. Kaine reminded voters that he is Mr. Warner's rightful heir, not the Republican.

It's worth noting that neither candidate made a convincing case that he has a cogent plan to address Virginia's gummed-up road system. Dealing with that will cost tens of billions of dollars and will require a major push from Virginia's next governor and its Republican-controlled legislature. Just one candidate in the race, state Sen. H. Russell Potts, a Republican running as an independent, has been upfront about the money, and taxes, that are required for transportation. And he wasn't on the stage yesterday.