MCLEAN, Va. — Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie jousted over the economy, race relations in the aftermath of Charlottesville and health care Tuesday night at their most lively encounter yet in the high stakes race for Virginia governor.
In their first televised debate, the two contenders sparred over issues in a spirited but genteel manner, and refrained from the personal attacks that have recently begun to flavor their campaign commercials and social media posts.
Both candidates began the debate with competing assessments of the state economy.
Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative and the party's 2014 Senate nominee, ticked off statistics that painted a dour picture of the Virginia economy, noting sluggish growth, stagnant wages and more residents leaving the state than moving in.
"We used to always lead, and now we are lagging," said Gillespie, who has made cutting taxes and regulations central to his bid.
Northam, the lieutenant governor, countered by citing Virginia's 3.8 percent unemployment rate — the lowest since 2008 — and accused Gillespie of talking down the state's strengths.
The debate which was moderated by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and hosted by George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, aired live on NBC4/WRC-TV in the Washington market and NBC affiliates statewide. Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra, who was not invited to participate, attended as a guest and answered questions posed by panelists on his Twitter account.
The debate began with a question about Charlottesville, where an August protest by white supremacists over the fate of a Confederate statue dissolved into violence with counterprotesters that left three people dead and sparked a national debate about race relations and whether to take down Confederate statues.
Virginia has more Confederate statues than any other Southern state and, asked about the proper place for them, Gillespie and Northam staked out different positions.
"Our history is our history," said Gillespie, adding that money spent on removing statues is better spent on schools and law enforcement. "And so my view is that-- the statues should remain, and we should place them in historical context so that people can learn. We don't have to glorify the objects of the statues, we can educate about them."
Northam, who said in the wake of Charlottesville that he would be a "vocal advocate" for localities to move monuments from public spaces to museums, has since dropped that language in favoring of deferring to locals. On Tuesday, he said he personally believes the statues should be moved to museums but then pivoted to talk more generally about the impact of racism.
"What is important is to talk about some of the statues that aren't built of bronze, the inequities that we still have in our society," said Northam. "There's still a tremendous amount of hatred and bigotry in this country and in this state."
Virginia's gubernatorial contest is drawing outsize attention this year as the nation's only competitive statewide race this year and as an early test of politics in the era of President Trump.
Recent public polls have found ties or Northam with a slight edge. Northam also has a commanding financial lead, with twice as much in the bank as Gillespie heading into September. The Republican Governors Association on Tuesday announced they would give Gillespie another $1 million, bringing their total spending to $4 million.
The debate also came as Congressional Republicans revived efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare and cut health-care spending.
Northam, a physician, criticized the Cassidy-Graham bill pending in the Senate, which would roll back the Medicaid expansion created under Obamacare and block grant the rest of Medicaid.
The result, Northam said, would be more people like a child he treated at a free clinic in southwest Virginia for those without health insurance.
"Go out to the Ram Clinic, look that little seven-year-old in the eye and look at her mother and say that she is not going to have the same health care that you and your family had. It's wrong," said Northam.
Gillespie, in his first comments on the bill, reiterated his earlier stance that any health care overhaul shouldn't penalize states such as Virginia that didn't expand Medicaid by targetting them for quicker and greater spending cuts. He said the latest legislation falls short of that standard.
"We do need to repeal and replace it," Gillespie said of Obamacare. "I hope that the Congress does, but we cannot be punished for being fiscally prudent and not accepting the expansion."
Gillespie asked Northam if he supported the single-payer "Medicare for All" health bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and several Senate Democrats. Northam quickly said he does not, and told reporters he believes consumers should be able to select a government health insurance plan that competes with private insurers.
Northam tried repeatedly to connect Gillespie to President Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in the state. Asked if he would like Trump to campaign with him, Gillespie said, "I'll take help from anybody anywhere, this is going to be a very close race."
Northern Virginia, a populous region that has been growing more reliably blue, is crucial to the outcome of the gubernatorial contest. Northam has shown significant leads in the region in public polling.
Gillespie made a point of mentioning an endorsement Tuesday from former Sen. John Warner (R), a well-regarded centrist Republican who endorsed Gillespie's opponent, Sen. Mark Warner (D), when Gillespie ran for the Senate in 2014. John Warner also endorsed Hillary Clinton last year. The Warner endorsement may help Gillespie win over crucial independents and moderates.
Both Northam and Gillespie said they would want to see reforms to WMATA, the public transportation agency that serves much of northern Virginia, before agreeing to additional funds or taxes from the state.
They also clashed over the issues of taxes.
Northam criticized Gillespie's proposal for an across-the-board cut in income tax rates, arguing it was a giveaway for the wealthy.
Gillespie in turn said Northam lacks a detailed plan for bipartisan tax reform that he references in a campaign commercial, and held up a blank sheet of paper as he quipped that he finally found Northam's plan online.
Northam campaign officials this week said they would spend the last six weeks of the campaign painting Gillespie as a "Washington, D.C. corporate lobbyist" who would bring Trump's policies to Virginia.
But Northam didn't attack Gillespie's record to his face, instead deriding him as a "K Street" lobbyist to reporters after the event.
The University of Virginia-Wise is hosting the third and final debate on Oct. 9. Both candidates have also committed to several other forums where they will not appear on stage together.
Incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is prevented by term limits from seeking a second consecutive term.