State Del. Nick Freitas, left, and Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart participate in a debate for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, during the Virginia Tea Party’s annual convention in Richmond on March 17, 2018. (Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

Republican Senate hopefuls Corey Stewart and Nick Freitas debated taxes, illegal immigration and guns before turning on each other Saturday in the rip-roaring first forum of the primary to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D).

Stewart said that if Freitas were the GOP nominee, Kaine would “chew him up and spit him out” and that only he, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, knows how to win elections in vote-rich Northern Virginia.

Freitas, a two-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Culpeper, countered that Stewart has lost two statewide elections, including the gubernatorial primary last year, because “he has done so much to divide the Republican Party.”

Republicans are struggling to rebound from bruising losses in the governor’s race and more than a dozen House of Delegates races as polls predict that Democrats hostile to President Trump could create another blue wave this November.

It is against that backdrop that the state’s most dedicated Republicans gathered in the state capital to loudly cheer and wave signs for their favorite candidate at a forum sponsored by the Virginia Tea Party, a coalition of conservative activist groups.

Four other Republicans running for the nomination declined to participate, leaving the stage to Stewart and Freitas.

Minerva Diaz, a consultant and “doctor of soul care”, said late Friday she was still on the road collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot, and evangelical pastor E.W. Jackson previously committed to speaking at a Virginia Beach church, according to organizers.

Bert Mizusawa, a retired major general in the U.S. Army Reserve and former Trump foreign policy adviser, and Army veteran Ivan Raiklin attended the Fairfax GOP convention instead. The primary is June 12.

With just three months before the primary, a poll released March 5 found the GOP field wide open. Two-thirds of Republican voters had not settled on a candidate, according to the survey by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. The poll asked voters their preferences among Stewart, Freitas, Jackson and Raiklin — Mizusawa and Diaz had not announced in time to be included.

The survey found that Stewart is the front-runner, but with just 16 percent support. Jackson was in second position with 7 percent, and Freitas was polling at 6 percent, with Raiklin at 1 percent.

Kaine, meanwhile, had a 20-plus point lead over any of the four Republicans, the survey found.

On Saturday, Freitas won a straw poll conducted at the forum with 140 votes to Stewart’s 76 votes; Jackson got one vote.

Stewart accused Freitas of buying tickets for supporters so they could vote in the straw poll; Freitas’s campaign said the number of tickets the campaign bought was fewer than Freitas’s margin of victory.

In a meeting room draped with bright red Virginia Tea Party banners, Freitas and Stewart both wore red ties and stood behind translucent lecterns, which, like the prohibition on notes and electronic devices, organizers said were used to prevent cheating.

Freitas touted his strict adherence to the Constitution with a libertarian message about limited government and said the beliefs most threatening to the nation are “socialism” and “cultural Marxism.”

“We don’t see people as a mindless cog in some sort of state-run program,” he said. “We see people as beautifully and wonderfully created with a purpose to serve in this life, and government’s job is to protect their liberty, their property, provide equal justice before the law so they can achieve their purpose.”

Stewart said he will never bend to political correctness, which he called a tool of Democrats.

“For 50 years, the left has waged war on America,” he said. “They hate America. They really do want to destroy it. They think that it’s a bad influence on the world. For 50 years they’ve done everything to destroy us and our culture and our heritage.”

Stewart made his support for Confederate monuments a major pillar of his primary campaign for governor last year, but the issue barely came up Saturday.

Given the chance to question Freitas, Stewart asked him to explain his vote on a bill that would give Metro $154 million a year in permanent new funding.

Freitas said he voted yes because the legislation requires Maryland and the District of Columbia to make contributions to provide the transit system, for a total of $500 million annually.

The candidates split sharply in their approaches to curbing sanctuary cities when asked whether the federal government should punish localities that do not enforce federal immigration laws.

“Yes,” Stewart said. “Prosecute any local or state official who declares themselves a sanctuary city.”

Freitas disagreed, saying that as a federalist he is wary of the U.S. government exerting more control over states.

“If we ever, God forbid, had a Hillary Clinton presidency, and they passed federal gun bans, when a sheriff . . . refuses to enforce it, the federal government is going to go in and put that person in jail,” he said.

Someone in the audience yelled “Wrong! Wrong!” as Freitas supporters cheered for an issue that animates the GOP base like few others.

Asked whether either supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Stewart, who led a major crackdown on immigrants in Prince William County, part of which was successfully challenged in court, said, “I think you know what my answer is,” to laughter.

He boasted that Prince William has handed over more than 8,000 people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation, drawing enthusiastic applause. He also backs Trump’s proposal to ask about immigration status on the census and to share the responses with ICE.

Stewart — whose remarks spurred a “Build that wall!” chant from the audience — said Freitas has sounded noncommittal in the past on Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Stewart’s campaign sponsors a website calling Freitas “Never Trump Nick.”

Freitas countered that he supports Trump and the wall.

“Corey has some problems with the truth from time to time, and this is one of them,” he said, drawing boos from Stewart supporters. “Because we absolutely do need to build the wall.”

Asked about guns, Freitas referenced an incendiary floor speech he made recently that helped elevate his statewide profile. He said the left is “myopically obsessed with guns” without considering options on which both sides could agree, such as the use of school resource officers.

Stewart said that the time had come for action, not speeches, and that he would make sure Prince William will be the first locality in Virginia to place retired police officers in every school.

In closing, Stewart noted that he slammed fellow Republicans in the House of Delegates who voted to approve a budget that expands Medicaid, something that Freitas also opposed but in a less outspoken way.

“If you want a winner and you want a fighter, then I’m your candidate!” Stewart said.

Responding to Stewart’s earlier criticism, Freitas said he is a former Green Beret who served two combat tours in Iraq.

“To say that anybody would chew me up and spit me out, that’s adorable,” he said as Stewart grinned.

The forum took place at the Virginia Tea Party’s quarterly convention, which featured presentations on foreign policy from Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the federal budget from the Heritage Foundation and the midterm elections from former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.

One discussion was titled “Illegal immigration: What the left doesn’t want you to know.”

The moderators were Henry L. Chambers Jr., a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who is a Democrat, and conservative radio personality Jim Herring.