In what has sometimes been an acrimonious preliminary contest for the seat of outgoing U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, six Republican candidates fought Wednesday to depict themselves as conservative heirs to the retiring congressman.

With a panel of young Republicans asking questions, the 10th Congressional District debate held at a Sterling, Va., middle school auditorium was framed as a meaningful discourse on key party objectives, such as overturning the federal Affordable Care Act, which critics have dubbed Obamacare, and limiting the debt ceiling.

But a few opponents couldn’t resist occasional digs at Virginia Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax), the presumed front-runner.

“Barbara Comstock is not going to tell the truth about her record,” Rob Wasinger, a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) said in his opening statement, accusing Comstock of being an “establishment Republican” who is in the pocket of government contractors.

Comstock, a former aide of Wolf’s during his 34-year tenure as congressman in the district that includes Loudoun County and portions of Fairfax County, mostly smiled her way through such attacks.

She has secured several major party endorsements in her bid to win the Republican nomination on April 26 and is expected to raise far more than her five opponents in the race to square off against Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), the Democratic nominee.

“We need to restore a strong America,” Comstock said in her opening statement, seeking to direct most of her comments toward the general election in November. “The prices for the failed leadership of Barack Obama makes for a dangerous world.”

Her opponents, however, continued to lay into Comstock, casting her as too moderate for the district, which leans Republican but has become more Democratic in recent years.

A radio spot launched this week by the campaign for retired U.S. naval commander Howie Lind cast Comstock as a “D.C. establishment Republican” who is beholden to House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), a theme that other candidates picked up during the debate.

Others bemoaned Comstock’s decision to vote for Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary — what she said was part of a strategy dubbed “Operation Chaos” by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh that was meant to weaken Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid that year.

“Our policies don’t match our rhetoric,” said Stephen Hollingshead, a former top official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, referring to Comstock and the Republican Party in general. “We make too many shady deals and take care of too many of our friends, and that makes people think our politics are dirty.”

While Comstock sought to strike a gracious tone before an audience of about 200 people in the school auditorium, her campaign’s response outside the debate was to serve up the same accusatory medicine.

“So now some of our fellow Republicans who claim to be conservatives are attacking Rush Limbaugh’s efforts?” Comstock’s campaign manager said in a statement e-mailed shortly before the debate started.

Still, the candidates were able to find common ground.

They all said they would work immediately to repeal Obamacare, if elected. They also said that the U.S. position with Russia has been far too weak.

When asked about their favorite president, most said Ronald Reagan, though Hollingshead chose Calvin Coolidge.

Comstock chose that connection to bring up a principle in politics Reagan made popular that frowns upon personal attacks in interparty contests.

“I loved his Eleventh Commandment, so I hope all the people up here remember that,” she said, to laughter in the audience.