McAuliffe repeatedly accused Youngkin of being an acolyte of former president Donald Trump — a "Trump wannabe," he said, several times — and attacked the Republican's opposition to coronavirus vaccine mandates as being "disqualifying as governor."
Constant interruptions and accusations between the two left moderator Susan Page of USA Today struggling to keep both men within time limits and adhering to the rules of the debate, which had been set by their campaigns.
The exchanges got personal at times, as when Youngkin seemed to imply that McAuliffe was unhealthy: "Terry, are you okay?" he said. "I'm worried about you."
A few moments later, McAuliffe returned the sentiment: “Relax, Glenn, I don’t want you to pass out on me.”
As McAuliffe claimed that Youngkin's plan for steep tax cuts would lead to cuts in education, law enforcement and other programs, Youngkin kept interrupting. "That's not true," he said, again and again.
During one Youngkin interruption, McAuliffe mentioned Youngkin's former company, the Carlyle Group: "This isn't a Carlyle boardroom; it's my turn," McAuliffe said.
"I know, you've never been in a real business boardroom," Youngkin shot back.
But between all the jabs and insults, the two showcased their differences on several big issues. McAuliffe, a former governor who served from 2014 to 2018, stressed his record in office and promised to make Virginia more inclusive and welcoming, while Youngkin emphasized his experience as a former business executive and promised to focus on the economy.
They were especially pointed on the subject of abortion, each accusing the other of being an extremist.
Page brought up the topic by noting that under Virginia law, a woman can get an abortion in the third trimester only if her life is at risk, as certified by three doctors. She asked McAuliffe if he would support legislation that would reduce the number of doctors to one.
He readily agreed, saying the three-doctor requirement puts women whose lives are in danger at additional risk, particularly in rural areas where medical personnel can be scarce.
McAuliffe also said that he supports a woman's right to an abortion through the second trimester and that he would like to enshrine Roe v. Wade in the state constitution.
McAuliffe brought up an episode from July, when a liberal group released a secretly recorded video of Youngkin saying he has to limit his antiabortion comments on the campaign trail for fear of alienating Virginia's independent voters, but that he would go "on offense" if he wins.
He added that if Virginia is seen as going the route of Texas, which recently enacted a law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, major employers would shy away from the state.
Youngkin said before the debate that he supports abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk, but he had declined to take a position on the new Texas law, which has exceptions only for the mother's life. Page asked Youngkin if he would sign a six-week bill if it included the three exceptions he supports, but Youngkin pivoted to the Texas law, taking a position on that for the first time.
"I do appreciate the fact that you would like to write legislation with me," he began. "I think the Texas bill is the standard right now that we're all looking at and I would not sign the Texas bill."
Youngkin went on from there to say McAuliffe supported abortion "all the way up through and including birth, where a child is kept comfortable while a decision is made whether that child lives or dies. . . . My opponent wants to be the abortion governor and I want to be the jobs governor."
Page pressed Youngkin on a six-week bill with exceptions, and Youngkin again declined to answer directly, but said he believed in a "pain-threshold bill." Youngkin did not elaborate and campaign officials did not immediately respond to requests to clarify his remark. He appeared to be referring to legislation to prohibit abortion once the fetus is thought to be capable of feeling pain; "pain-capable" legislation in other states have typically put that cutoff at 20 weeks.
Another sharp exchange involved the coronavirus pandemic, with McAuliffe touting his support for vaccine mandates and Youngkin opposing them.
Youngkin suggested that McAuliffe had tightened his position on vaccinations when "it was politically expedient." Pressed by Page on whether he would join other Republican governors in challenging the constitutionality of the president's vaccination requirements, Youngkin said, "I don't believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine."
McAuliffe was asked whether he supported requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren and responded that he has favored vaccine mandates for employers, health-care workers and schoolteachers. He then slammed Youngkin for “anti-vax” rhetoric.
McAuliffe eventually said that he would require children over 12 to get vaccinated.
In a pair of extraordinary exchanges, each candidate had a chance to ask the other a question. McAuliffe described a nurse treating a cancer patient and asked Youngkin if he thought the nurse should be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to protect the life of the patient.
Youngkin said he hoped the nurse would choose to get vaccinated. “My opponent wants to mandate,” he said. “I respect your ability to make decisions.”
Youngkin then asked McAuliffe if he would stand by his appointment of a former parole board chairwoman who was accused by an inspector general of violating policy in releasing certain inmates.
McAuliffe responded that if an appointee broke the law, he would replace her.
The two also had some common ground. One question involved whether to continue allowing police officers qualified immunity against lawsuits over actions they take in the line of duty.
Many Democrats in the General Assembly have advocated ending the practice as a way to hold law enforcement accountable for abuses. Youngkin expressed strong opposition to ending qualified immunity for what he called “law enforcement heroes.”
McAuliffe said he also opposes changing the law.
The topic of faith in the security of Virginia’s elections was more sensitive for Youngkin. The Republican made “election integrity” an early centerpiece of his campaign, playing to a belief among Trump supporters that Biden stole the 2020 election. McAuliffe noted Youngkin’s focus on the issue several times, at one point deriding the issue as “the Trump crazy 2020 stuff.”
Page sought to pin Youngkin down on election fraud, noting that Youngkin has embraced an endorsement from Trump, who has raised questions about the integrity of the upcoming governor’s race.
“Do you believe there has been significant fraud in previous Virginia elections and do you agree with President Trump that Democrats may cheat [in this race]?” she asked.
“I do not believe there’s been significant fraud in Virginia elections,” he said. Youngkin sought to turn the tables on McAuliffe, noting that as Democratic National Committee chairman, he claimed that George W. Bush was not the rightful winner in 2000.
But when Page pressed Youngkin on whether he believes Democrats will cheat, he answered: “No.”
Both men also pledged that if they ultimately lost this year’s election, they would accept the results and recognize the other’s victory.
On the topic of Virginia’s right-to-work law, which discourages union membership and is favored by the business community, Youngkin tried to draw a sharp contrast with McAuliffe, vowing he would never allow the law to be repealed.
While many Democrats in the General Assembly favor repeal, McAuliffe continued his noncommittal stance — he has said he would sign a repeal bill but knows that it would never pass the legislature.
On Thursday night, McAuliffe never answered the question, instead accusing Youngkin of being unwilling to support the interests of low-wage workers.
Despite the sometimes harsh tones during the debate, the candidates shook hands afterward and thanked each other, then worked the auditorium, thanking Page and the panelists and greeting audience members. After Youngkin left, McAuliffe took questions from reporters, calling the debate a “good exchange.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I am absolutely shocked that Glenn Youngkin doesn’t think that a nurse working at a cancer hospital, treating immunocompromised individuals,” should be required to get a vaccine, he said. “To me, that was the most shocking thing coming out of tonight. You are putting Virginia lives at risk. I think that’s disqualifying for governor.”
Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe handled the post-debate media duties, declaring to reporters that Youngkin “wiped the floor with” McAuliffe.
“We saw an outsider with new ideas, fresh ideas on how to get the Virginia economy back on track, and Terry had nothing to add,” Roe said.
The only other gubernatorial debate is set for Sept. 28 and sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.