WASHINGTON — As he seeks to return to his old job, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was focused far more on November's general election than his Democratic opponents in a televised debate less than three weeks before the June 8 primary election.
McAufliffe's opponents tried to frame the front-runner as a politician of the past during Thursday's virtual exchange, sponsored by NBC Washington.
But instead of mixing it up with his party rivals, McAuliffe peppered many of his answers with digs at Republican Glenn Youngkin, the former private equity executive who won the Republican nomination earlier this month.
He also took regular swings at former President Donald Trump, looking past the primary by trying to define Youngkin as an extension of Trump while repeatedly mentioning his own "friend," President Joe Biden.
"The Republicans have just nominated an extreme, right-wing billionaire to be their nominee," McAuliffe said, noting Trump's endorsement of Youngkin.
"We cannot let Glenn Youngkin do to Virginia what Donald Trump did to our country," he said.
McAuliffe has emphasized the general election as he holds a commanding lead in fundraising and public polling, and he has taken criticism from Republican groups and Youngkin along the way.
While the virtual debate, moderated by NBC News' Chuck Todd, largely lacked fireworks, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan tried to contrast themselves with McAuliffe. They did so largely without mentioning him directly and by pitching themselves as new leaders who could bring Virginia into the future. McClellan or Carroll Foy would be the state's first Black female governor.
Carroll Foy tacitly pushed back against the idea that McAuliffe is the nominee-in-waiting, arguing that the GOP wants Democrats to "recycle the same old policies and politicians of the past" instead of picking a "new leader with a clear vision and bold ideas."
"So many people have told me all my life that it's not my time and not my turn. Millions of women out there know exactly what that feels like, having our experience undermined and our credentials questioned," she said.
"I'm not here to ask the patriarchy for permission," she said. "I'm here to get things done for the people of Virginia."
McClellan pointed to her experience in the Legislature to frame herself as the compromise candidate who "has the experience but also brings a fresh perspective."
"As a working mother, as a Black woman who has seen how our state government has left many communities behind, I have worked to address those problems for the past 15 years," she said. "I have more governing experience than any other candidate running for governor, all of them combined. And I've used that experience to lead."
McAuliffe, who largely focused on Youngkin instead of his opponents, fended off his opponents' criticisms by promising "bold" policies.
"We need experience now to lead us out of this very tough crisis. I did it before. I'll do it again. And I have big, bold plans," he said. "We've tinkered around long enough. It is time to lead the country."
State Del. Lee Carter staked out the party's more progressive lane, arguing that the Covid-19 pandemic underscored the need to re-evaluate how the commonwealth provides for its people.
"We are in a pivotal moment in the history of this commonwealth, one where we have to decide whether we will return to the status quo," he said. "Or if we will transform this commonwealth into a place where wealth is common."
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, whose bid has been marred by allegations of sexual assault, celebrated the work of the current state administration and his role in breaking tie votes in the state Senate as Lt. Gov. on issues like Medicaid expansion and legalization of recreational marijuana.
"You pair that with the experience that we've had, the success that we've had over the last four years, and that's a vision that I think Virginians support," he said.
The debate also spanned issues from the pandemic to the economy, police reform and health care.
Speaking about the pandemic, McAuliffe and Fairfax backed businesses' requiring customers to show proof of vaccination for Covid-19 before they enter.
"If you want to come into my business establishment, I want to see a vaccination, because I want to keep my customers safe. Absolutely," McAuliffe said.
Carter, Carroll Foy and Fairfax all said they supported Biden's proposal to raise taxes on people making more than $400,000, with McClellan backing "comprehensive tax reform" and McAuliffe saying he supports Biden's idea of "raising money to fund infrastructure."