Virginia lieutenant governor candidates Democrat Ralph S. Northam and Republican E.W. Jackson arrive for a debate moderated by WUSA reporter Peggy Fox at Founders Hall at George Mason University in Arlington on Tuesday. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

If Republican E.W. Jackson’s critics were hoping for an explosive verbal performance at an Arlington lieutenant governor’s debate Tuesday, they were probably disappointed.

Instead, the Chesapeake minister, who has made a national name with sharp-tongued comments on gays, Planned Parenthood and President Obama, sought to rise above his reputation as a flamethrower by talking in soaring terms about returning the country to a place of dignity and Virginia to a sense of unity.

In a debate that touched on issues including abortion, home-schooling and tax cuts, the role of reminding viewers of Jackson’s more incendiary ways fell to Ralph Northam (D), the pedia­tric neurologist and state senator from Norfolk running against Jackson.

Northam cast his opponent as dangerously divisive and personally irresponsible — someone who would hurt the state both economically and with his social values if elected. In his closing statement, Northam condemned Jackson’s rhetoric.

“What I do in church translates to what I do in everyday life,” Northam said. “Whether it’s said in my church or whether it’s said in my medical clinic or whether it’s said before the Senate, it’s on me and it’s what I believe in. Our job as lieutenant governor is going to be to unite people and to move Virginia in a positive direction. Making statements against LGBT individuals, making statements against Democrats, that they’re anti-God, that they’re anti-life — those kinds of statements, they’re all offensive. We’re all Virginians.”

The debate brought attention to a low-profile political contest that has drawn unusual scrutiny because of Jackson’s statements and the implications his campaign carries for the rest of the Republican ticket this year.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who faces Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for governor, has at times distanced himself from Jackson as he has tried to attract voters in an increasingly moderate Virginia. Cuccinelli, a social conservative himself, has come under fire within his own party for playing down some of his views; if he can succeed in striking a balance between the demands of the Republican base and the wider Virginia electorate, he could give the GOP a road map for victory in next year’s midterm elections.

In the 90-minute debate Tuesday, at George Mason University’s Arlington County campus, Jackson mounted a full-throated defense of religious liberty and free speech, answering a question from moderator Peggy Fox about his statement Sunday in a church sermon that non-Christians “are engaged in some sort of false religion.”

“I know the difference between what I do there and what I’m required to do here,” Jackson said, adding that he would not want to see a religious test applied in the political realm.

Later in the debate, the minister said: “I am a person who believes in unity. It may not always be apparent, because I have deep convictions.”

The most heated exchange came when Fox asked Jackson about the potential harm caused by his inflammatory statements. Jackson responded by reading aloud a section of the Virginia Constitution that differentiates social opinions from one’s ability to govern. Northam pounced on that opening, arguing that one’s personal beliefs guide one’s actions in government.

As they engaged on mental-health policy, the candidates tread on intensely personal terrain.

At one point, Jackson said, “I don’t want to scare you, but I’ve got some mentally ill people in my family, and they need help and they need treatment.” He recalled treating people over the years as a minister, then added, “You can’t just cast them aside, and you can’t pretend they don’t need something more than an occasional visit to a hospital or doctor.”

Jackson said the move away from the institutionalization of the mentally ill in recent decades has gone too far in some cases. He pushed for some patients to be institutionalized.

Northam acknowledged Jackson’s family experience but drew a contrast on policy.

“I’m sorry that you have people in your family who are mentally ill, but how sad to think that you would go visit them in an institution, Mr. Jackson. We can do better than that in the commonwealth,” Northam said. “The answer is not to put them back in an institution. If you want to talk about ringing the cash register, that’s the way to do it, my friend.”

The two candidates were hungry for the opportunity to introduce themselves. In Virginia’s off-year elections, getting attention on down-ballot races is tough, and the campaigns hoped communicating even the most basic biographical outlines could boost their candidate.

Jackson touched on his narrative of personal redemption, describing a childhood that included stints under foster care and an eventual reconnection with his father that taught him the value of self-reliance and set him on a path toward Harvard Law School and, eventually, a life in the ministry.

Northam, the son of a judge and a nurse who grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, attended the Virginia Military Institute. He went to medical school on an Army scholarship before serving in the military for eight years. He was stationed in Germany during Operation Desert Storm, helping triage and treat injured service members. He then returned home to work as a pediatric neurologist.

Jackson’s years as a minister shined through in the careful pacing and bursts of energy that animated his responses. Northam, influenced in part by his years as a physician, offered a lower-key but precise presence.

The two candidates expressed the most disagreement on education, with Jackson advocating the idea of using money normally reserved for public education to help parents home-school their children or use public vouchers for private school.

“If the focus of education is the children, not the protection of the system, but the children, then it seems to me that the parents who choose to home-school their children should be given every opportunity to share in the resources that it takes to educate those kids,” he said. “Home-school parents are being treated as second-class citizens.”

Northam said that position would lead to further erosion of public schools and massive teacher layoffs.

“You’re looking at $110 million per year that would come out of our public education budget,” Northam said, saying he has reviewed Jackson’s education plan and did some rough number-crunching.

“It means the loss of 1,700 teachers, and I haven’t heard any way to make up that difference,” Northam said. “If you are going to take away from public education, at least give us another source of income so that we don’t have to lay off 1,700 teachers.”

Jackson talked up his plan to eliminate the state’s corporate income tax to boost job creation. He has not outlined how he would address any resulting budget shortfall, predicting instead that the cut itself would dramatically increase economic growth.

Northam responded that such a policy “would literally bankrupt the commonwealth of Virginia. We don’t need to go there.”

Northam repeatedly cast himself as the more fiscally responsible candidate, emphasizing his experience running his own medical practice, while hammering Jackson for past financial difficulties.

“One of the two of us is going to be overseeing approximately an $80 billion budget,” Northam said.

“I have run a successful business. I have never been in bankruptcy. I have never had liens placed against my property. I have been responsible, and I have never been sued by my home town for not paying my taxes. It is a tremendous responsibility running an $80 billion budget.”

Some of those legal actions against Jackson were later dismissed.

In Virginia’s General Assembly, Northam’s highest-profile fights have been influenced by his medical background. During the debate he touted a successful bipartisan effort to ban smoking in Virginia restaurants and noted his vigorous opposition to a Republican bill last year that would have required a transvaginal ultrasound before some abortions.

The requirement was eventually removed.

Jackson gave no ground on the issue of abortion.

“I am unabashedly pro-life,” he said. I don’t make any apologies for that, and I will always do everything in my power to persuade others that it is the right thing to do to protect the lives of unborn children.”