RICHMOND — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and businessman Terry McAuliffe laid out competing visions for protecting Virginia’s environment Saturday night while taking pointed shots at each other’s approach to governing.

The two leading candidates for governor spoke back to back at a dinner for Virginia Forever, a nonprofit dedicated to the stewardship of the commonwealth’s land and water. The two hopefuls tried to strike a balance in an effort to appeal to the organization’s diverse audience of both environmentalists and leaders from the business community.

McAuliffe (D) largely stuck to broad themes, giving a modified version of his standard stump speech with an extra emphasis on conservation. He pledged to “preserve over 400,000 acres of open space across Virginia” as governor. McAuliffe also said he would pursue “mainstream bipartisan solutions” to environmental issues and said he would not appoint people to his cabinet with a “social, ideological agenda.”

Cuccinelli (R) repeated his usual critiques of the Environmental Protection Agency on some fronts but also detailed examples where he had worked with the federal government to crack down on polluters.

Cuccinelli said he would offer specifics and not the “broad generalities and promises” that he suggested McAuliffe has offered.

Environmental issues have played a pivotal role in the contest for governor. On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency released proposed carbon pollution rules that would have a major impact on Virginia’s coal industry, leading Cuccinelli to accuse McAuliffe and President Obama of abetting a “war on coal.”

McAuliffe, while expressing concern about the health of the coal industry, has stressed the importance of alternative energy. He and allied groups have assailed Cuccinelli for his skepticism of manmade climate change and painted the Republican as too cozy with energy companies against the interests of Virginia landowners.

“I believe the scientific consensus that climate change is real, it’s happening, and is caused by our continued actions. I know that the attorney general and I disagree on that,” McAuliffe said Saturday, citing the perils that rising sea levels hold for the Hampton Roads region.

McAuliffe said “Virginia needs to be a leader in cutting-edge energy technologies,” praising the research into carbon capture and sequestration underway at Virginia Tech.

“With the new regulations that are coming out of Washington, the work we’re doing at Virginia Tech is even so much more important,” McAuliffe said, in his sole reference to the EPA rules. (McAuliffe has said he is still reviewing the regulations and has not taken a position for or against them yet.)

Cuccinelli also said he was “still digesting” the rules but made clear that he believed they would be bad for the commonwealth.

“It’s great to move into other areas of energy production, but we are a coal state, and we should not have a governor who’s willing to set aside the people of Southwest Virginia,” he said.

Cuccinelli noted that Virginia’s constitution specifically mentions the importance of protecting the environment while the U.S. Constitution does not.

“It’s pretty clear that our founders expected states to handle these sorts of matters and these areas of responsibility,” Cuccinelli said. “That’s why I have worked with the EPA to prosecute pollution violations, and I have fought the EPA when they exceeded their authority.”

The two candidates also differed on a topic important to Virginia Forever – the land preservation tax credit, which gives tax breaks to people who agree to put their land under conservation easement.

McAuliffe drew applause for saying he would oppose a reduction in the credit and said the tax program would be key to meeting his goal of preserving open space.

Cuccinelli said he had “concerns” about using the tax credit in lieu of direct purchase of land worthy of preservation.