Virginia gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart speaks during a Capitol gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Yes, we’re already at the name-calling stage in the Virginia governor’s race.

Republican hopeful Corey Stewart blasted rival Ed Gillespie Monday for sending a surrogate instead of attending a gun rights rally, calling him a coward who was afraid to do anything not approved by consultants.

Gillespie said he could not attend because he had agreed to participate in a Martin Luther King Day service event.

Stewart was joined at the rally by fellow Republican hopeful Denver Riggleman, along with several candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. No Democrats attended the event, which was put on by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“Hello, deplorables!” Stewart greeted the crowd of about 200 on Capitol Square, using the term Hillary Clinton famously used to refer to supporters of Donald Trump. “Are you ready to take back the commonwealth of Virginia?”

Some in the crowd wore hunters’ camouflage; at least one man had a rifle slung across his back, and at least one woman had a handgun in a hip holster. Most wore orange stickers that said, “Guns save lives.”

Stewart invoked his early support for Trump, and said that while “we won the battle for the presidency,” that’s not enough. “We have to gain the controls in Virginia,” he said, to be able to not just defend Second Amendment rights, but to extend them even further.

Stewart said he would push to eliminate fees for getting concealed carry permits and advocate for a constitutional amendment for the right to carry a weapon.

“As you know,” he said, “I’m not afraid to [tick] off liberals.”

Then he turned to the subject of Gillespie, who had sent Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) to speak on his behalf. Lingamfelter is one of the legislature’s most forceful voices for gun rights.

Calling Gillespie as “Establishment Ed,” Stewart said he had seen Gillespie that morning at the General Assembly Building.

“But did he even bother to show up and address you? He didn’t,” Stewart said. “He sent somebody else, another politician, to come and talk to you. The guy’s afraid of his own shadow. He doesn’t do anything unless his consultants approve of it. Everything is poll-driven. Folks, that’s not leadership. That is cowardice, pure and simple.”

While his rivals were at the gun-rights rally, Gillespie was at Mount Vernon Baptist Church a few miles from the Capitol. Donning clear gloves and tucking his tie into his dress shirt, he helped pack up meals of baked chicken, rice and green beans for use at a homeless shelter.

“Ed committed to participate in an event at a church honoring MLK Day before getting invited to speak at the rally, and he did not want to break that commitment,” said Gillespie spokesman Matt Moran. “He appreciates VCDL President Phil Van Cleave understanding that, and allowing Delegate Scott Lingamfelter to share with the crowd Ed’s strong support of our Second Amendment rights.”

At the rally, Lingamfelter said Gillespie “will oppose any effort to infringe on our Second Amendment right and he will use his veto pen when he needs to.”

Lingamfelter said Gillespie had assured him he would sign legislation that would allow retired law-enforcement officers to carry guns while working security in schools.

“He will empower law-abiding gun owners to defend themselves, their families and their homes because it is our right!” he said. “Ed Gillespie’s gonna fight against the liberals when they try their over-reaching tactics.”

Gillespie is in the midst of a five-day, 20-stop statewide tour that took him to Richmond, Williamsburg and Fredericksburg on Monday. In Richmond, he courted business-oriented Republicans with a speech to a gathering of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the political organizing arm of the conservative group led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The three other Republicans running for governor addressed the AFP gathering in the afternoon.

In his speech to AFP, Gillespie limited his criticism to Democrats, namely McAuliffe and his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. McAuliffe is prevented under the state constitution from seeking back-to-back terms,

Gillespie said the “McAuliffe-Northam” administration’s “singular approach” to economic development has been to lure big companies with taxpayer-funded incentives.

Gillespie he would do more to foster “natural, organic growth” by reforming the tax code and easing regulations. He voiced support for off-shore drilling and for making public schools and universities more responsive to parents and students.

“We desperately need to get Virginia moving again,” he said.

Northam spokesman David Turner said that under McAuliffe’s administration Virginia has created 167,100 additional net new jobs “leading to more people employed now than ever before.”

“Enron Ed probably doesn’t know this because he’s spent the majority of his life working in D.C.,” Turner said.

Denver Riggleman, the newest and least-known GOP candidate, used the gun rally and AFP event to lay out a colorful biography that includes counter-terrorism work for the National Security Agency. He and his wife opened a craft distillery in Nelson County.

Riggleman got the most enthusiastic response at the AFP event, bringing the audience to its feet with his personal tale of regulatory woe. He described loads of red tape involved in opening the distillery: Curbs in the parking lot that had to be torn out because they were ½ an inch too high. Conflicting mandates from the federal and county governments on the positioning of his outdoor lighting. Run-ins with the liquor lobby.

“Those things are actually what got me into this race,” he said. “It’s not just regulatory issues. It’s the fact that people behind closed doors are creating their own self-licking ice cream cones. … The simple fact is, people are paying to keep other people out of the competitive space.”

He took no shots at fellow Republicans; he even said there are “a lot of good people” in the race. But he needled a Democrat seeking the nomination.

“I think there was a congressman who called you guys nut-job extremists,” he said at the gun rally. He appeared to be referring to Tom Perriello, the former congressman who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor and used that term Friday in a radio interview.

“So I don’t think you’re just deplorables, I think you’re nut-job extremists too, and I’m one of you,” he said. “So I’d like to say that as a fellow nut-job extremist, there’s somebody else who was a nut-job extremist up there.”

He then invoked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and tied him to the rally this way: “You know Martin Luther King was a pacifist. Martin Luther King thought that there should be peaceful revolution just like everybody else out here. I was reading about it, I didn’t know that he applied for a concealed carry permit. … He wanted a concealed carry permit – why? Because he knew that [while he favored] peaceful revolution…you have to defend yourself violently if somebody comes after your person.”

At the AFP meeting, State Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), who missed the gun-rights rally because he was attending a Senate committee meeting, based his pitch on his experience as a businessman and a long-time member of the General Assembly. He stressed the need to reform career and technical education, reduce regulation, and improve transportation.

“I know a little bit about job creation,” said Wagner, a Navy veteran who’s owned shipyards.