Bruce Carlson considers himself mainly a Democrat. He voted for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for president and for Terry McAuliffe for governor back in 2013. But he won’t be voting to make McAuliffe Virginia’s governor for a second time.

Carlson, a retired hospital administrator, is switching over to the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, because he believes public schools are pushing a radical agenda in which American history is portrayed as racist, and transgender kids are encouraged to use the bathroom of their choice.

In the country’s biggest electoral showdown of the year, Virginians are deciding whether to return McAuliffe to office, making him only the second governor in state history to serve a second term, or turn to Youngkin, a wealthy political neophyte. The outcome, strategists from both parties agree, will hinge on which candidate best generates enthusiasm from his base, overcoming the traditionally sharp falloff in voting in the year following a presidential election.

Three weeks before Election Day, the race is closer than either party had anticipated. McAuliffe seeks to capitalize on Virginia’s strong shift toward Democrats in recent years, even as his party and President Biden struggle through a rough season in Washington, facing the continuing pandemic, a plateaued economic recovery and intraparty battles over Biden’s plans to invest in infrastructure and social programs. Youngkin’s candidacy, meanwhile, is an early, crucial test of Republicans’ ability to craft a comeback in next year’s midterm elections.

For McAuliffe, who faces the harsh reality that Virginia almost always chooses a governor from the party that lost the previous year’s presidential contest, the way to kindle enthusiasm has been a barrage of ads linking Youngkin to Donald Trump and emphasizing the Democrat’s commitment to curbing covid-19 with vaccine and mask mandates.

For Youngkin, who needs to surmount the 10-point margin Virginia voters gave Joe Biden last fall, the push to excite voters is two-pronged: To stir up Trump’s base, he’s focusing on culture wars issues (“guns, God and country,” as Del. Bill Wiley (R) put it as he introduced Youngkin at a rally in Winchester) and especially on banning schools from emphasizing the role race has played in U.S. history.

At the same time, to reach Republicans and independents turned off by Trump, Youngkin is presenting himself on TV as a genial suburban dad who’s open to compromise and doesn’t strike suburban voters as scary or disruptive.

McAuliffe relentlessly attacks Youngkin as two-faced, “a Trump wannabe” dressing up as a moderate. “He’s a fraud,” the former governor said in an interview. The TV image of Youngkin as a soft-spoken, hoops-playing, moderate is nothing but “an act,” McAuliffe said. “The guy has been endorsed by Donald Trump four times.”

Amanda Leahy, 46, who lives in Lovettsville in Loudoun County, got the message. She often skips “smaller elections,” but said she’s determined to vote this fall “because of the recent past,” her euphemism for Trump’s presidency.

“It’s not just him, but the people that followed him, who are not people I want the rest of the world to think of when they look at America,” she said.

For Leahy, the new Texas law effectively banning most abortions is a frightening assault on women’s rights — one she wants to make certain doesn’t spread to Virginia. She also wants to vote this time because she sees McAuliffe as far more likely than his opponent to mandate protections against the spread of the coronavirus — an urgent issue to her because her 9-year-old son is the only member of her family too young to have been vaccinated.

But the drive to link Youngkin to Trump isn’t going over with some voters. It’s a tired tactic, said Carlson, a 76-year-old retired hospital administrator in Winchester who said he hopes Trump doesn’t run for president again — “too loud and domineering.”

Carlson was drawn to Youngkin’s rhetoric, repeated endlessly in conservative media, about Democrats using the schools to push a social agenda, which Youngkin often summarizes as teaching “critical race theory,” an academic approach used in some college and law school courses to examine racism’s role in U.S. history. Virginia schools officials have said that the approach is not used in the state’s curriculum, and McAuliffe has not advocated for it.

But Carlson put a Youngkin sign in his front yard the day after he heard McAuliffe say in a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

In contrast, Carlson said, “this guy” — Youngkin — “wants to teach people how to think, not what to think.”

Carlson was attending a Youngkin rally at a farm stand outside of Winchester, where, less than 20 minutes after Carlson quoted him, Youngkin repeated precisely those words about teaching kids how to think.

In his half-hour address, Youngkin never mentioned Trump, covid, vaccines or masks (only six of the 192 people at the indoor event wore masks). But he repeatedly hit on the idea that “left-liberal-progressive” Democrats were teaching “our children to view everything through the lens of race and divide everyone into different buckets to steal their dreams.”

“On day one,” he said, drawing his biggest cheers of the night, “we will ban critical race theory.”

To many in the all-White audience, the pledge to push back against social changes — many parents said they resented seeing their children taught to declare which pronouns should describe them — was catnip.

“What they’re teaching in schools now is trying to separate people by classifications,” said Dana Newcomb, 74, who lives in Frederick County. “It’s meant to drive us apart.” Newcomb, a lifelong Republican, said he was drawn to Youngkin in part by his “comfortable style. I was not someone who liked President Trump’s style — too harsh.”

Far stronger critiques of Trump are driving many Democrats and independents to come out to vote for McAuliffe. On the ballot or not, Trump is a proven vote-generator in Virginia. In the last governor’s race, in the first year of Trump’s term, turnout jumped from 43 percent of registered voters in 2013, when McAuliffe won the post, to 48 percent. The Trump effect was most evident in big spikes in turnout in heavily Democratic areas such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria in the D.C. suburbs.

Some Republicans worry that the suburban voters Youngkin needs to win over are fearful enough of covid’s impact that they’ll be alienated by a candidate who opposes mask and vaccine mandates.

“In a world where covid has emerged as a serious threat, people in my district are frightened,” said Del. David A. LaRock, a pro-Trump conservative who is the only Republican remaining among state House members representing Northern Virginia. But LaRock (Loudoun) said Youngkin is connecting both with voters who want full-throated support for the vaccines and with those who oppose mandates.

“When Youngkin offered to do a public service announcement for vaccines and opposes mandates, clearly he’s reaching for both segments, and it’s working,” LaRock said.

He believes covid concerns are being outweighed by the debate over what should be taught in classrooms and what he called “the transgender ideology” — issues that get big play on Fox News and other conservative media and that many voters cite as a primary reason they’re for Youngkin.

Some Democrats similarly worry that McAuliffe’s focus on covid concerns may not be enough to overcome complacency on the part of some voters who came out in record numbers last fall to defeat Trump.

Despite Biden’s easy win in Virginia last November, Del. Joshua G. Cole (D-Fredericksburg), campaigning for McAuliffe and his own reelection, said he is meeting “a lot of voters who say, now that we’ve gained control of both chambers in Richmond and in Washington, can we get a break from all these elections?”

Cole, who is Black, did not support McAuliffe in the Democratic primary this year. “I wanted a woman,” he said. McAuliffe handily defeated two Black woman legislators in June and now leads Youngkin among Black voters by 87 percent to 7 percent, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. In 2013, McAuliffe was lifted to victory by his 90 percent share of the Black vote.

Cole has embraced McAuliffe, but as he knocks on doors in his exurban district, which reaches north of Fredericksburg toward the D.C. suburbs, he finds many voters who say they support Cole’s reelection — but will also vote for Youngkin.

“They see him as someone who’s not as polarizing as Trump,” Cole said, “and some of them are fatigued by the national Democrats. We try to draw them back to Virginia issues such as affordable housing and traffic.”

“We need to say, ‘Wake up, ye sleeping beast,’” said Cole, a pastor serving his first term in Richmond. “Virginia is a blue state, but if our base doesn’t show up, we could have Youngkin as governor.”

Annie Kennedy got that message. A retired government worker who lives in Fredericksburg, she felt a surge of relief after Biden’s victory. “‘It’s over, finally,’ was the feeling,” she said. “But it’s not over. I’m afraid a lot of people are burned out, honestly. But I don’t want to blow this. The Democrats in Washington can’t get it together and get things done, but we have to. People around here still talk about Trump.”

After a repairman came to her home and chastised her for having liberal-leaning MSNBC playing on her TV, Kennedy decided she had to devote her energy to getting McAuliffe elected.

But a segment of the Democratic base “just wants a break from everything,” said state Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D), who represents parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties. “Especially the folks who have lost their jobs in the pandemic — it’s hard for them to see how this election’s going to help change their lives.”

The challenge for Democrats, Boysko said, is to motivate voters who “are scared and upset given what we’ve all gone through these past couple years. The other side is using fear, scaring people with the transgender and school curriculum issues. But it isn’t working. Just like they tried to scare people about illegal immigration in 2017 and that didn’t work either.”

Phil Cox ran the last successful Republican statewide campaign in Virginia, managing Bob McDonnell’s race for governor in 2009. Now, Cox believes Youngkin has a strong chance to win because Republicans and independents “are angry and motivated.”

“With inflation, rising crime and the border crisis, the Democratic brand is damaged goods right now,” said Cox, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “So their only play is to tie Youngkin to Trump, but Virginians know Trump’s not on the ballot.”

Virginia has become a more Democratic state over the past decade, Cox said, but by portraying the Democratic Party as having shifted too radically to the left, Youngkin can win over voters looking for a reasonable center.

Mark Cranmore has voted for Democrats, such as Sen. Tim Kaine, and for Republicans, such as Trump. He wouldn’t repeat that one. “No way in hell,” he said.

Next month, Cranmore is voting for Youngkin, mainly to balance things out. He likes it when the two parties split power — it encourages them to actually deal with each other, “because,” he said, “if we don’t start getting along, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

Ruby Pierce, an independent who lives in Berryville, was shopping for a candidate who’s neither extreme nor dishonest. She’s vaccinated against covid-19 and likes McAuliffe’s focus on curbing the virus, but doesn’t want children to have to wear masks at school. She wants teachers to get a big raise, but likes Youngkin’s message about parents taking control of what’s taught in school.

“I agree with both of them on the vaccine,” Pierce said. She has voted for Kaine and other Democrats in the past, but she went with Trump for president twice, though now she says, “He’s so yesterday.” She said she’s appalled by people who refuse to get the shot as a way of showing support for Trump — “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.”

That positions Pierce squarely in the middle, which is where she thinks Youngkin is. “He’s a fresh start,” she said. “McAuliffe had his chance. Time for someone else.”

Both sides consider the race a toss-up, and both believe the candidate with the more enthusiastic base will prevail.

But what does enthusiasm look like right now? Is it the early voting numbers that show far more people casting ballots so far — especially in Democrat-heavy northern Virginia — than did at this point four years ago? Is it the slight edge McAuliffe holds in several recent surveys? Or is it the thin margin Youngkin has in a couple of polls measuring the depth of voter interest in the race?

“In an off-off year election,” Cox said, “intensity matters more than ability to persuade uncommitted voters.”