In their final debate before November's gubernatorial election in Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin accused each other of being dishonest and dangerous to a commonwealth they portrayed as headed for disaster if the other won.
"Terry, I just can't understand how you can just so comfortably lie to everybody," Youngkin said at one point.
McAuliffe shot back: "That's what you've been doing all night, buddy."
McAuliffe and Youngkin clashed over the coronavirus pandemic, abortion rights and former President Donald Trump.
They tangled repeatedly over the hour in a forum moderated by NBC News' Chuck Todd, offering divergent views on transgender rights and how schools should teach the history of systemic racism in a state that was home to a capital of a Confederacy. Both issues have emerged as flashpoints for conservatives.
"Teaching our children about racism in our schools is a real challenge," Youngkin said, echoing national conservatives' concerns about teaching about systemic racism — often shorthanded incorrectly as critical race theory. "I think we recognize that Virginia and America have chapters that are abhorrent. We also have great chapters. 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," he continued. "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."
Youngkin also took a swipe at McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014 to 2018, for flip-flopping on the removal of Confederate statues in Virginia. McAuliffe opposed removing them until after the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
At another point, McAuliffe said he didn't want parents to make some topics they disliked off-limits in schools. "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," he said. "You know, I get really tired of everybody running down teachers. I love our teachers."
Early in the debate, McAuliffe wasted no time hitting Youngkin for opposing Covid-19 vaccination mandates, which have become the central theme of McAuliffe's campaign in recent weeks as polls show that majorities of Virginians favor requirements for vaccinations and masks in schools and health care settings.
Youngkin said that he wants everyone to get vaccinated and that he has been vaccinated himself but that he worries that requiring health care workers to be vaccinated, for instance, would push some of them out of the workforce when health care workers are needed most.
He accused McAuliffe of flip-flopping on vaccination mandates for political reasons, saying they had shared the same position on mandates until recently.
"For political expediency — he must have seen a poll somewhere — he changed his mind completely," Youngkin said.
McAuliffe, repeating a favorite line, called Youngkin a "Trump wannabe" who "says one thing on right-wing radio and then another here."
To underscore his point, he pointed to conservative commentator Bill Kristol, a vocal Trump critic, who endorsed McAuliffe last month.
Youngkin, a Harvard Business School graduate and the former CEO of the private equity giant Carlyle Group, hails from the moderate business wing of the GOP. But he has courted Trump supporters to help him win his party's nomination and turn out conservative voters in the general election.
Youngkin also took a clearer position on the 2020 election that puts him at odds with Trump. "There wasn't material fraud, and I believe that the election was certifiably fair," he said.
Youngkin parried McAuliffe's efforts to paint him as a Trump clone with a joke.
"Terry, you just made folks in Las Vegas a lot of money," Youngkin said after McAuliffe mentioned Trump's endorsement. "There's an over/under tonight on how many times you're going to say 'Donald Trump,' and it was 10, and you just busted through it."
Asked whether he would support Trump in 2024 if he takes another run at the White House, Youngkin declined to encourage him to run or to express any enthusiasm for the idea. "If he's the Republican nominee, I'll support him," Youngkin said.
Abortion rights dominated an early part of the debate. McAuliffe argued directly to Virginia women that he was "a brick wall" on such issues during his first term as governor and said restrictive laws would hamper economic development.
"Glenn Youngkin is in the extreme," McAuliffe said. "And I can tell you this: Businesses are not going to come to a state where they're putting walls up around their state."
Youngkin repeated a line from the previous debate, charging that McAuliffe wants to be "the abortion governor," while offering himself as a "pro-life" candidate who favors a so-called pain threshold bill in Congress that would outlaw abortions in the second trimester. He emphasized that he supports exceptions in cases of rape and incest and when the woman's life is in jeopardy.
Virginia's off-year gubernatorial campaigns are often looked at as a measure of the political climate a year after a presidential election and before the midterms — and as a referendum on the party in the White House.
A unique state law prohibits Virginia governors from serving consecutive terms, setting the stage for McAuliffe's comeback attempt four years after he left office. Democrats and Republicans are treating it as a close race. A Monmouth University poll this week found McAuliffe leading Youngkin by 5 percentage points among registered voters.