HOT SPRINGS, Va. (AP) — The two major party candidates in Virginia's closely watched race for governor argued Saturday over the typical debate fare — guns, abortion, health care — as well as the best approach to dealing with President Donald Trump.
Ed Gillespie, a dyed-in-the-wool establishment Republican who has tried to keep his distance from the president, said he doesn't always support Trump's policies but is willing to work with the president on issues important to Virginia like defense spending.
Democrat Ralph Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, said Trump is a "dangerous" man and Virginia needs a governor willing to stand up to him. Northam said Gillespie has been conspicuously silent in criticizing Trump's policies on health care and immigration that Northam said hurt Virginians.
"You really have been missing in action," Northam told Gillespie.
But Gillespie countered that Northam's antagonistic approach to Trump would harm a state heavily dependent on federal spending.
"What are you going to do as our governor? Call the White House and say, 'Please put me through to the narcissistic maniac,'" Gillespie said, referring to a term Northam has repeatedly used to describe the president.
Trump threatens to loom large in the off-year race for governor in Virginia, one of only two states picking a new chief executive this year. Democrats are hopeful that anti-Trump energy on Election Day will help them hold on to all three statewide offices in November and make major gains in the state House as well. They see Virginia's contests as an early national referendum on Trump's presidency ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Virginia Republicans have offered varying levels of support for the president, and have often tried to stress local issues instead of federal ones in their campaigns.
At Saturday's debate, Gillespie grew frustrated when the debate moderator asked whether he would support Trump were he to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Gillespie ignored the question and said he was focused on Virginia specific issues.
When not talking about Trump, the candidates sounded familiar notes on taxes and social issues.
Gillespie is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, White House aide to President George W. Bush and federal lobbyist who tried to establish his pro-business bona fides. He focused his answers on the need to improve the state's economy, saying he has the sense of urgency and tax-cut plan needed to prevent Virginia from becoming a Rust Belt-like state.
Northam countered that Gillespie is falsely painting a portrait of a moribund economy, saying Virginia has done well under current Gov. Terry McAuliffe's leadership and will continue to improve if Northam is elected. McAuliffe is barred from seeking a consecutive term.
Northam is a pediatric neurologist and an Army veteran who played up his support for issues important to the Democratic base, such as abortion rights, gun control and expanding Medicaid.
He was interrupted early in the debate by a protester who opposes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed project to carry natural gas across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina that has angered land owners and environmentalists. The protester urged Northam to oppose the pipeline before being escorted away.
Gillespie has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the pipeline project, while Northam has neither opposed it nor warmly embraced it, saying only that he will back the pipeline's construction if it can be done in an environmentally safe way.