After months of assailing each other’s integrity from afar and by proxy, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and businessman Terry McAuliffe traded direct attacks on stage Saturday in the opening debate of their heated race for Virginia governor.

In a 90-minute face-off, the candidates cast their arguments in sharply personal terms, accusing each other of bullying, influence peddling and “flimflammery.”

McAuliffe (D) dubbed Cuccinelli a conservative zealot on issues including gay rights and abortion and unsuited to govern the increasingly moderate commonwealth, while Cuccinelli (R) called McAuliffe a “Washington insider” with little understanding of the state and its voters.

From the start, Cuccinelli accused McAuliffe of looking out only for himself.

“Instead of putting Virginians first, you put Terry first, a common theme for you,” Cuccinelli said.

During the Virginia Bar Association convention debate on Saturday, Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R) discussed gay rights, abortion, and a variety of political issues. (The Washington Post)

McAuliffe called Cuccinelli the “true Trojan horse of Virginia politics.” “You come in pretending to be one thing, and you end up being something else,” he said.

The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association at the Homestead Resort, comes as the contest enters a crucial stage. Many Virginians still know little about either candidate, and both campaigns are preparing for the brighter glare that will come from debates and an increase in television advertising in the run-up to the November election.

The national spotlight has also shifted to the commonwealth, because of the high-profile gifts scandal that has engulfed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and because — with New Jersey’s gubernatorial race unlikely to be competitive — Virginia is the only political game around in this off-year election.

Although McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have stark differences on policy, much of the debate focused on the personal — continuing what has been a largely negative, character-focused battle.

Cuccinelli has been dogged by his ties to Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the Star Scientific chief executive whose gifts to McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, are being investigated.

Republicans, in turn, have painted McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, as a professional fundraiser with a history of questionable or unsuccessful businesses and scant knowledge of Virginia government. Cuccinelli has been especially critical of GreenTech, the electric car company that McAuliffe co-founded, because it considered placing a factory in Southside Virginia but chose to put it in Mississippi instead after getting a generous incentive package from that state’s government.

McAuliffe said that Cuccinelli had spent four years pursuing a “social, ideological agenda” and that the Republican had broken past campaign promises to focus on economic issues. McAuliffe also reiterated his argument that Cuccinelli’s conservative policies on such issues as women’s health and gay rights would drive businesses from the state.

“In order to grow the economy, we’ve got to make Virginia an open and welcoming state,” McAuliffe said.

Cuccinelli fired back that “the only candidate in this race who has chased business out of Virginia is Terry,” citing the GreenTech plant.

Later in the debate, McAuliffe said that he “would love to have put a plant in Virginia” but that companies have a “fiduciary” duty to investors.

“Okay, you picked Mississippi, so run for governor of Mississippi,” Cuccinelli said, prompting a rare burst of laughter from the staid audience.

McAuliffe said Cuccinelli had forgotten his “fiduciary duty” when he accepted a $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner for his family from Williams, whose gifts have prompted scrutiny.

“That’s a lot of turkey,” McAuliffe said.

In the most obvious misstatement of the debate, McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli over the findings of a Richmond prosecutor who had been tasked with investigating Cuccinelli’s financial disclosures.

“If you read the whole report, which I have,” McAuliffe said, “it says in here that the attorney general should have been prosecuted” over his failure to disclose his stock holdings in Star Scientific and gifts from Williams. McAuliffe also said that because of Cuccinelli’s ties to Williams and Star, which filed a civil tax case against the state, “a judge took the case away from him because of a conflict of interest.”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring said in a report last week that he found no evidence that Cuccinelli had violated the law. And it was Cuccinelli’s office that requested recusal from the tax case.

“So much is inaccurate,” Cuccinelli said when asked in the debate to respond, “I’ll let the fact checkers take care of it. That one’s gonna get sliced up.”

After the debate, McAuliffe sought to clarify his comment. “On the report — the attorney general could have been prosecuted if we had stronger disclosure laws in Virginia,” McAuliffe said, although Herring’s report did not make that assertion.

Asked specifically why he had taken gifts from Williams, Cuccinelli did not give a direct answer but said Williams had asked him for no favors and had gotten none.

Cuccinelli said McAuliffe was the candidate hiding the ball from Virginia voters. Cuccinelli has released eight years of his tax returns, while McAuliffe made public only summaries of three years of returns.

“I think the people of Virginia, right now more than ever, need confidence in . . . the commitment to transparency of our next governor,” Cuccinelli said.

Two Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have called for McDonnell to resign, but neither gubernatorial candidate followed suit when debate moderator Judy Woodruff, of PBS’ NewsHour, asked directly whether they thought the incumbent should step down.

Cuccinelli said he did not think it would be “appropriate” for the sitting attorney general to call for the governor to resign while an investigation was continuing. McAuliffe said that “everybody should stand down” until all the facts are clear and that McDonnell “shouldn’t be tried through the media.”

On economic policy, Cuccinelli declined to say how he would pay for his plan to cut taxes by $1.4 billion a year. He said he would study all tax loopholes and close those that no longer make sense. Woodruff pressed him, but he declined to elaborate.

McAuliffe said the plan “would be devastating to our economy.”

Cuccinelli countered that McAuliffe was “saying whatever he thinks he has to say to get elected.” And he called McAuliffe’s own economic plans “pure flimflammery.”

On gay marriage, McAuliffe said he would sign a bill overturning Virginia’s ban on such unions if it reached his desk, but he said that was unlikely given the makeup of the General Assembly.

Woodruff also asked Cuccinelli whether he stood by comments he made several years ago, that homosexuality was “against nature and harmful to society.”

Cuccinelli said that his beliefs about “the personal challenge of homosexuality” had not changed but that as governor, he would strive to make Virginia a place where everyone has equal opportunity.

Asked about whether he would push for more restrictions on abortion as governor, Cuccinelli said: “I do not expect to use the political capital of the governor’s office to be moving those pieces of legislation. My focus is on job creation and job growth.”

Cuccinelli reiterated his opposition to President Obama’s health-care plan, but he also criticized Obama for not following his own law by postponing the legislation’s employer mandate for one year. McAuliffe, meanwhile, made clear that he still supports the law and stressed that he thinks Virginia should accept the measure’s invitation to expand the state’s Medicaid program, which Cuccinelli opposes.

On immigration, McAuliffe said it would be “one of my finest hours” as governor if he could sign a state version of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to some immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as minors.

Cuccinelli said he wanted to see “some sort of compromise reached on immigration” and said a path to citizenship “could be part of the proposal.”

The most recent poll of the race, a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday, showed McAuliffe with a four-point lead. Both campaigns think the contest is roughly tied, a fitting state of play given that Virginia has become a purple state.

Obama won the commonwealth in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and half of the state Senate. But Republicans, helped by redistricting, control the state House of Delegates by a wide margin and eight of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats.