Virginia lieutenant governor candidates Republican E.W. Jackson, left, and Democratic State Sen. Ralph S. Northam debate at George Mason University in Arlington on Tuesday. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

For well over an hour, the Virginia lieutenant governor’s debate Tuesday evening was a pretty sedate affair. Whatever audience was watching — not on live television, mind you, but only streamed on the Internet — could be forgiven for giving up early.

It would have been a mistake. With about 15 minutes to go in the 90-minute contest, moderator Peggy Fox of WUSA9 finally got to the emotional topic that everyone knew would eventually surface: Republican nominee E.W. Jackson’s past statements denouncing Democrats as “anti-God,” gays as “perverted” and non-Christians as following a “false religion.”

If you took office as the state’s No. 2 official, Fox asked the preacher from Chesapeake, mightn’t such comments make it harder to govern?

Both Jackson and the Democratic nominee, Sen. Ralph Northam, a physician from Norfolk, scored strong rhetorical points in the subsequent exchange — but it served Northam better, overall.

That’s because the Democrat’s top goal in this first of at least two debates was to highlight the contrasts between himself and Jackson. Otherwise, Democrats feared, voters focused on the gubernatorial contest might overlook the ultraconservative ideology of the Republican candidate in the lieutenant governor’s race.

Although the differences felt muted for much of the debate, the ending more than made up for it.

When Fox brought up Jackson’s record of inflammatory rhetoric, the Republican was ready. Saying he’d expected the question, Jackson surprised nearly everyone in the George Mason University auditorium in Arlington by grabbing a tablet computer he had close at hand.

He then read a passage from the state constitution. It protects Virginians’ rights to express any opinion whatsoever in matters of religion.

To fault him for speaking out on religious issues, Jackson said, was to create a religious test for holding public office. It wasn’t fair when critics did it to Roman Catholic John Kennedy or to Mormon Mitt Romney, and it wasn’t fair to do it to him now. He knew the difference between ,what he professed in church and what he said as a politician.

But Northam was well-prepared, too. In measured tones, he blistered Jackson’s argument on two points.

First, the Democrat said, one shouldn’t say one thing in church and another outside. Whether he spoke in church or elsewhere, Northam said, what he says “is from me, and it’s what I believe in.”

Then he described the cost of Jackson’s statements, saying they were divisive and would damage the state if Jackson won the lieutenant governorship and, thus, became chair of the state Senate.

“Those kind of statements, whether they’re said in a church or on the floor of the Senate, they’re offensive to people, they’re offensive to me, and they should be offensive to all Virginians,” Northam said.

Previously in the debate, perhaps to avoid seeming too aggressive, Northam had been gentle about spelling out how his record and positions differed from Jackson’s.

The Democrat repeatedly mentioned that he had served six years in the Senate — but without noting that his opponent had never held public office. Northam reminded the audience that he’d supported this year’s bipartisan transportation package — but without including that Jackson had opposed it.

For his part, Jackson seemed content to avoid making any missteps. He repeatedly said broadly that he wanted to reduce the role of government, such as by stopping Obamacare, and didn’t try to pick a fight with Northam. As one would expect from a candidate experienced in giving sermons, Jackson spoke eloquently, and with more passion than did the comparatively mild-mannered Northam.

The two men did express contrasting views, though without much heat, on abortion,gun control, and institutionalizing some of the mentally ill (Jackson in favor, Northam opposed).

By the end, though, Northam had found his voice. In his closing statement, he specifically contrasted his views and Jackson’s on transportation and on public funding for home-schooled students. Northam also reminded voters that he, unlike Jackson, had never been through bankruptcy proceedings.

Afterward, Northam took questions from the news media, but Jackson departed without holding the customary, post-debate “gaggle.” People with the campaign said Jackson had to get to another, undisclosed event.

The lieutenant governor’s race is traditionally the least-publicized of the three statewide campaigns in Virginia, trailing even the attorney general’s contest. That has been working against the Democrats, who have been hoping that controversy over Jackson would rub off on Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

Tuesday’s debate didn’t generate any explosive new material, but it highlighted differences that the Democrats hope will help their cause.

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