McAuliffe took credit for creating a booming economy when he served as governor from 2014 to 2018, and promised to make it even better by fighting the coronavirus, improving conditions for workers and fostering a culture of inclusiveness.
The candidates picked up where they left off this month from their only other debate, with each calling the other a liar and too dangerous to serve as governor.
But there were a handful of areas where they agreed. Both men urged Congress to pass the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and McAuliffe urged passage of the even bigger package of spending programs proposed by congressional Democrats — though he said the $3.5 trillion price tag was “too high.”
But the starkest difference laid out in the debate centered on the coronavirus vaccine. McAuliffe renewed his calls for mandatory vaccines for teachers and health-care workers, while Youngkin praised the vaccines but said getting a shot should be a personal choice.
Pushed by moderator Chuck Todd on whether he also thinks that vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella should be voluntary, Youngkin drew a distinction.
"I think the data associated with those vaccines is something we should absolutely understand the difference between this vaccine," Youngkin said.
When Todd asked for a direct answer, Youngkin said: "Those vaccines can be mandatory. I do believe the covid vaccine is one everyone should get but we shouldn't mandate it."
Later in the debate, Youngkin also vowed that as governor, he would not repeat the economic restrictions of the earlier stage of the pandemic. "We're going to not shut down our economy, no lockdowns," he said.
McAuliffe, who has called for employers, health-care workers and teachers to be required to get vaccinated, had earlier condemned Youngkin for his stance that vaccines should be voluntary.
Outlining a scenario in which an unvaccinated 5-year-old has to go to a school with a teacher who is also unvaccinated, McAuliffe said Youngkin was fine with that situation and charged that that position is "disqualifying" for being governor.
The debate took place on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College as polls show a tight race: McAuliffe was standing at 50 percent to Youngkin's 47 percent in a recent Post-Schar School poll.
In an opening statement, Youngkin had promised to act "on day one" after becoming governor to lower taxes for residents. He promised to eliminate the state's 2.5 percent grocery tax and create 400,000 jobs.
And in a continuation of the insults and name-calling that both candidates engaged in during their previous debate on Sept. 16, Youngkin told the audience that McAuliffe was a habitual liar while McAuliffe called Youngkin a "Trump wannabe."
Youngkin has walked a tightrope when it comes to former president Donald Trump, who lost the state by 10 points last year but remains deeply popular with the GOP base. When Todd asked Youngkin if he would support Trump if he ran for the White House in 2024, Youngkin initially sidestepped.
"Who knows who's going to be running for president in 2024," Youngkin said. After a moment, he added, "If he's the Republican nominee, I'll support him."
Todd asked McAuliffe, who mulled a run for president in 2020, if he would promise to serve his full term if elected, and McAuliffe said he would.
"I looked at '20," he said with a laugh. "That didn't go too far."
Virginia’s election has national significance as the first competitive governor’s race of the post-Trump era and as a harbinger of next year’s congressional midterm elections.
The Post-Schar School poll suggested that several outside factors could weigh on the governor’s race. Sagging approval ratings for President Biden appear to be depressing support for McAuliffe, while controversial developments in states with Republican governors — such as soaring coronavirus cases in Florida and the recent Texas law that bans most abortions — could work against Youngkin.
In his opening statement, McAuliffe promised to fight for Virginians, lift up workers and defeat the coronavirus. He also accused Youngkin of taking hard-right positions on multiple issues on "right wing radio" programs, but then trying to appear more moderate to the general public.
McAuliffe, who like all Virginia governors was barred by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term, vowed to use another four-year stint to raise the minimum wage, ensure paid sick days and lower health-care costs.
Princess Blanding, a third-party candidate who is on the ballot but was not invited to participate in the debate, disrupted the event for several minutes. Rising from her seat in the auditorium, she yelled that her exclusion was unfair and racist. She was eventually escorted out of the building by security.
Youngkin returned again and again to themes of crime and law enforcement, accusing McAuliffe of failing to keep Virginians safe.
McAuliffe defended his record on law enforcement, saying Virginia had "the lowest crime rate in any major state in America" during his term in office. And he said Youngkin would threaten public safety by rolling back gun-control laws passed in recent years under McAuliffe's successor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
"After the tragedies of Virginia Beach and Virginia Tech, we need to get guns off the street," McAuliffe said, referring to two mass shootings. "Today in Virginia, if a spouse goes on social media and says, 'I am going to kill my spouse,' we can go in and take that gun away. Glenn Youngkin will roll back all common-sense gun protections. So he'll [eliminate] background checks, and guess what, criminals will get guns and they'll kill civilians and they'll kill law enforcement."
Though the hot-button term "critical race theory" never came up in the debate, both candidates were asked how they would teach children about race and Virginia history.
Youngkin slammed McAuliffe for once vetoing a bill, passed by Republicans in the General Assembly, that would have let parents remove books that they objected to from school libraries or curriculums.
McAuliffe defended his position, saying "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." And, he added, "I get really tired of people running down teachers. I love teachers!"
He said he favored the removal of divisive Confederate monuments from public spaces.
Youngkin acknowledged that some of Virginia's history is "abhorrent" and said that "we need to teach our children real history. We need to teach our children to come together, and have dreams that they can aspire and go get. We don't need to teach our children to view everything through a lens of race and then pit them against one another so that their dreams are in fact stolen from them."
Both candidates continued to portray the other as extreme on abortion. Youngkin, who describes himself as antiabortion but says he supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life, said he would support a "pain threshold bill" like one in Congress, which would ban most abortions after 20 weeks. McAuliffe said he would not support loosening current restrictions on abortion but would seek to codify Roe v. Wade in the state constitution.
Youngkin used his closing statement to issue a plea for unity. "Join me in breaking free from what has plagued our country and divided our neighborhoods for too long," he said, citing "broken politics" and "failed leadership."
He promised "a vision that would confront challenges, not people."
McAuliffe followed up by suggesting that Youngkin was faking.
"You just heard Glenn Youngkin introduce himself to Northern Virginia voters — and it was all an act," McAuliffe said in his closing statement. "He wants to ban abortions, let's be clear. He's against gay marriage, let's be clear. He says the single most important issue facing Virginia today is election integrity. I don't think that's the case."
McAuliffe has sought to emphasize Youngkin’s ties to Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in Virginia but energizes the GOP base. Trump has endorsed the Republican candidate several times, and Youngkin spent the early part of his campaign flirting with Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. He has said that “election integrity” is a top issue in his campaign.
But Youngkin has softened that stance as he courts the moderate and suburban voters that any Republican will need to win in Virginia, where GOP candidates have been shut out of statewide elections for a dozen years. Just last week, Trump warned in a radio interview that Youngkin could lose if he doesn’t fully “embrace the MAGA movement.”
Youngkin, meanwhile, has tried to tie McAuliffe to the left wing of the Democratic Party, charging that he has accepted endorsements from groups that have advocated defunding the police and accusing McAuliffe of favoring the repeal of Virginia’s right-to-work law.
Presented by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Tuesday’s one-hour debate was sponsored by the chamber in partnership with the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, Capital One, NBC4 Washington and Telemundo 44.
Youngkin and McAuliffe top the ballot in the Nov. 2 Virginia elections, which also feature races for lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.
Early voting began Sept. 17 and continues through Oct. 30.
The only other debate of the gubernatorial contest was Sept. 16 on the campus of the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy in southwest Virginia.
Schneider reported from Richmond.