By Alan Suderman
WISE, Va. (AP) — The two major party candidates in Virginia’s closely watched race for governor made some of their most pointed face-to-face attacks to date at their final debate Monday.
With less than a month to go before Election Day and most polls showing a tight race, both Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam tried to draw clear contrasts with their opponent.
Gillespie accused Northam of being an absentee lieutenant governor who had neglected his duties by not attending meetings of various state panels and committees.
“Maybe it’s just as well, given that you’re for higher taxes and I’m for lower taxes,” Gillespie said.
Northam accused Gillespie of only being concerned with helping the rich and repeatedly brought up Gillespie’s career as a Washington lobbyist.
“I showed up for this country,” Northam said, who is a pediatric neurologist and former Army doctor. “The only time you have showed up is when you get paid.”
The debate was held at the University of Virginia at Wise, in Virginia’s far southwest. The region has been hit hard by the coal industry’s decline and the opioid epidemic.
Gillespie and Northam both promised to be a champion for the area. Gillespie said he would re-enact a coal tax credit and said Northam’s support of a cap on carbon emission from power plants would raise electric prices and hurt the coal industry.
Northam vowed to do “everything that I can to support the coal industry” while chiding Gillespie for not supporting an expansion of Medicaid for the region’s poor.
The two also clashed over so-called “sanctuary cities.” Gillespie said he would be tougher on unlawful immigrant gang members than Northam, who said he strongly supports law enforcement and accused Gillespie of needless fear mongering.
Gillespie and Northam also found plenty to agree on, including a pay boost for teachers and a more compassionate criminal justice system for dealing with drug addicts.
The debate was also notable for the fact that President Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned once.
Virginia is one of only two states electing governors in 2017, and the contest is getting national attention as a potential early referendum on Trump’s first year.
Trump did not win Virginia but remains deeply popular in the state’s southwest, where he got more than 80 percent of the vote in many counties. Gillespie will likely need a strong showing from Virginia’s Trump country if he is to win.
But Gillespie, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush, has been reluctant to embrace Trump for fear of alienating more moderate voters. Gillespie did not mention at the debate that the president had recently tweeted his support for Gillespie’s campaign, the first public comments the president has made about the race. After the debate, Gillespie said the president doesn’t come up much during campaign events, so he wasn’t surprised Trump didn’t come up during the debate.