Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam highlighted his ability to appeal to Republicans, and former congressman Tom Perriello touted his appeal to disillusioned voters as the two met in their first Democratic gubernatorial debate.
Northam had been expecting an easy path to the nomination, but Perriello launched a late campaign that has attracted support of the party's insurgent wing.
Perriello has been endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Northam has been endorsed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Virginia's two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
Saturday night's debate in Fairfax was their first leading into the June primary. The debate was friendly, but Northam criticized Perriello's support from the National Rifle Association during his time in Congress, while Perriello chided Northam for accepting support from the state's powerful utility, Dominion Resources.
Perriello, who represented parts of southwest Virginia in Congress from 2009 to 2011, received strong ratings at the time from the NRA, but he has since distanced himself, and during the debate, he called the NRA a "nutjob, extremist" organization.
Perriello highlighted his refusal to accept money from Dominion, a dominant political force in Richmond. He said the state politicians' allegiance to the utility is holding back Virginia from developing clean-energy jobs.
Both candidates saved their harshest rhetoric for President Donald Trump.
Northam said he will "stand up to the narcissistic maniac on the other side of the Potomac." Perriello said Trump ran the most hateful, racist campaign of his lifetime, and that Democrats like him were briefly in a funk after his elections. "But millions ... decided to get up off our couch, and organize, and resist."
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who grew up on Virginia's Eastern Shore, highlighted his ability to win statewide and in a conservative district when he served as a state senator. He touted his success at working with Republicans to pass a smoking ban in Virginia restaurants during the Kaine administration, despite the influence of the tobacco lobby in Richmond.
Perriello said he will bring a new way of thinking to Richmond, and will appeal to Virginians who otherwise won't vote in an off-year election because they see Democrats as no different from Republicans.
On other issues, both candidates supported raising the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour. Both would provide two free years of community college to Virginians, but differed in their approach. Northam's plan would make the free tuition dependent on completing a year of public service. Perriello said that approach fails to recognize that community college is an investment; he said he'd rather have those graduates join the workforce immediately as taxpayers earning good wages.
The gubernatorial race is attracting national attention as one of the few 2017 campaigns that will shed light on the electorate's mood under President Donald Trump. McAuliffe is limited by Virginia law to a single term.
Several Republicans, including former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and State Sen. Frank Wagner, are seeking the Republican nomination.