Tension is rising in the Virginia House’s 33rd district race in the days before the general election, as Democrat Mary Costello Daniel’s campaign reported a surge in fundraising momentum, and Republican Dave LaRock has found himself defending his absence at several debates.

LaRock, a hard-line Republican who defeated longtime incumbent Del. Joe T. May in a startling upset in the Republican primary, is battling Daniel, a self-described moderate Democrat, in a district that is historically conservative.

The Republican businessman has drawn criticism for his lack of participation at a series of recent candidate forums. After he did not attend an Oct. 17 event hosted by the Purcellville Gazette, the candidate and the newspaper offered opposing accounts of how the event was scheduled.

On his campaign Web site, LaRock claimed that the Gazette did not afford LaRock an opportunity to propose an alternate date after being told that there was a scheduling conflict.

“We offered that Dave might be able to participate on a later date, but the Gazette went ahead with promoting and holding their event knowing that Dave could not be there,” his campaign’s statement said.

But the Gazette immediately disputed that explanation.

“In clear terms: When the LaRock campaign was asked to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ regarding participating in our 33rd district campaign forum, they responded with a ‘maybe,’” the Gazette said in its statement. “When offered the opportunity to provide an alternative date for the forum, they declined to provide one.”

The Gazette pointed out LaRock’s failure to attend an Oct. 7 candidate forum hosted by the Clarke County Education Association and an Oct. 15 forum hosted by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.

“To suggest the Purcellville Gazette misled our readers when, in fact, Mr. LaRock was side-stepping his opponents in public, is disappointing,” the statement said.

Daniel’s campaign also quickly joined in the fray, releasing a statement questioning LaRock’s “veracity” because of the conflicting accounts.

“If a candidate cannot give an honest and straight answer to a newspaper, there is no reason to believe he is giving honest and straight answers to the voters on anything,” said Doug Dodson, manager for the Daniel campaign, in the statement. “His comments about this event are just as deceitful as his claims about Mary Daniel in his campaign mailings.”

LaRock’s campaign stuck to its story in a statement Monday, saying that the candidate was committed to being “open and honest” with the media and with voters.

“We stand by the fact that we turned down the Gazette’s offer of a forum when the offer was made– a week before the event was scheduled,” the statement said. “Both Dave and his opponent have accepted and declined opportunities to speak at events; that’s nothing new, especially when those opportunities come on short notice.”

LaRock did attend a candidate forum hosted Saturday by the Winchester Branch of the American Association of University Women in Winchester, according to his campaign.

LaRock’s comments at the Winchester forum focused on his background as a businessman, as well as “his volunteer watchdog efforts that have already saved local residents hundreds of millions of dollars,” a campaign statement said Monday, referring to LaRock’s criticism of the financing behind Metro’s planned Silver Line expansion in Loudoun County.

According to the statement, LaRock also announced a high-profile endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business, cited as Virginia’s leading small-business association.

“Who is the candidate in this race that is equipped to help create jobs?” LaRock said. “I am honored to say the National Federation of Independent Business answered that question by endorsing just one candidate in this race: me. They know there is no substitute for a proven track record and experience.”

Campaign finance records show that LaRock, who has consistently led his opponent by a wide margin in fundraising, fell behind for the first time in September. Daniel received over $76,000 in contributions, while LaRock reported about $65,000, records show. A third candidate in the 33rd district, Libertarian Patrick Hagerty, reported $0 in campaign contributions.