It was a testy start to the second and final debate in Virginia's high-stakes governor's race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin Tuesday night.
With polls showing a close contest just five weeks before Election Day, the debate broadcast by NBC4 centered on familiar national issues: the pandemic, abortion rights and former President Donald Trump. The candidates also tried to score points on a host of less prominent topics, including crime rates, Youngkin's background in private equity and labor law.
Here are key takeaways from the final gubernatorial debate before Election Day on Nov. 2:
That Escalated Quickly
It took less than 90 seconds for Youngkin to call McAuliffe a liar.
“In the first debate, he lied to you. That's what politicians do," the Republican candidate said during his opening statement.
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The attack set the tone for the debate, with each candidate taking on the other in personal terms, even if Youngkin was often the aggressor. Youngkin clearly got under McAuliffe's skin at times.
“I just can't understand how you can so comfortably lie to everybody,” Youngkin said during one exchange on abortion.
McAuliffe retorted, “That's what you've been doing all night, buddy.”
Things got particularly nasty when the candidates were talking about the state budget.
“Revenue and expenses, I know were hard for you. I know they’re hard for you,” Youngkin said. “Terry, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
McAuliffe repeatedly seized on Youngkin's opposition to mask and vaccine mandates. It's an issue McAuliffe's team believes is a political winner, especially as the pandemic remains a serious threat in Virginia and beyond.
Youngkin came prepared with a statement outlining his position — “Everyone should get the vaccine ... but I don't believe we should mandate it” — but stumbled briefly when asked by moderator Chuck Todd whether he supports mandating vaccines for diseases like measles and mumps, which have been required in U.S. schools for generations.
He eventually said he did support mandating measles and mumps vaccines, explaining that more data was available on those inoculations.
McAuliffe described Youngkin's position as dangerous.
He “says if you don’t want to get it, don’t get it. You can’t be governor and say things like that,” McAuliffe charged. ”That is disqualifying."
Trump on the Ballot?
McAuliffe repeatedly tried to link Youngkin to the former president, calling Youngkin “a Trump wannabe.” Youngkin, who has been endorsed by Trump, didn't like it.
“There’s an over/under on how many times you’d say Donald Trump,” Youngkin said. “You’re running against me. It’s Terry McAuliffe against Glenn Youngkin.”
He added, “The only person invoking Trump is you.”
Youngkin has declined to embrace Trump as heartily as some of his Republican primary challengers did in a state Democrat Joe Biden won over Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020. And while he tried to sidestep the subject onstage Tuesday, Youngkin made news in the final minutes of the debate when asked whether he’d support Trump if he runs again in the next presidential election.
Initially, Youngkin tried to dodge: “Who knows who’s going to be running for president in 2024?”
When pressed, he clarified, “If he’s the Republican nominee, I’ll support him.”
Abortion Fight Comes to Virginia
The candidates exchanged particularly heated rhetoric on abortion, which has emerged as a central issue after the Supreme Court scheduled arguments in a case that could challenge Roe v. Wade.
Youngkin, who has downplayed his anti-abortion policies on the campaign trail, confirmed that he does support a “pain threshold bill,” which would ban most abortions after the 20-week mark. The Republican then pivoted to his opponent, calling McAuliffe “the most extreme abortion candidate in the country.”
“You want to be the abortion governor,” Youngkin charged.
The Democrat seemed to welcome the attack.
“I want every woman in Virginia to listen to me closely. I was a brick wall to protect women’s rights,” McAuliffe said. He later added, “Women are tired of people like Glenn Youngkin telling them what to do with their bodies.”
The fight is a likely preview of midterm elections across the country. Democrats believe the threat of new abortion restrictions will help rally women behind them. Female voters, particularly in the suburbs, have played a key role in helping Democrats seize control of Congress — and Virginia — in the Trump era.
It remains to be seen if Democrats will do as well without Trump as a foil in the Oval Office.
Who’s in Charge of Education?
Youngkin's team believes he forced McAuliffe into a mistake when the candidates veered into a discussion about books recently banned from the state's largest school district.
Fairfax County Public Schools removed two books from school libraries last week for containing sexually explicit language. Youngkin raised the incident and said parents should have the right to decide whether the books were in schools.
“We watched parents so upset that there was such sexually explicit material in the library they had never seen. It was shocking,” he said. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids' education.”
McAuliffe wasn't having it.
“I'm not going to let parents come into schools and take books out and make their own decision,” the Democrat said. “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The books – “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe -- were recently honored by the American Library Association.
What About the Base?
While there were a few exceptions, Youngkin generally offered would-be supporters a moderate brand of conservatism, avoiding wading too far into many of the culture war issues popular among the most passionate Republican voters.
He didn't engage in a question about transgender children in schools and he said he would welcome refugees from Afghanistan. When asked how schoolchildren should be taught about racism, he avoided the term “critical race theory” altogether.
“I think we recognize that America and Virginia has chapters that are abhorrent,” Youngkin said, adding, “We don't need to teach our children to view everything through the lens of race and then pit them against one another.”
And when the conversation shifted to “election integrity” -- code for Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud costing him the 2020 election -- Youngkin declined to embrace his party's harshest rhetoric as well, instead trying to put McAuliffe on the defensive.
He charged that McAuliffe never acknowledged that former President George W. Bush was legitimately elected. He noted that Florida officials invested in their election system after the 2000 recount debacle involving hanging chads and butterfly ballots, using that example to justify his support for changing Virginia law following the 2020 election.
Of Trump's loss, Youngkin said, “I said there wasn't material fraud and I believe that the election was certifiably fair.”