Three Republicans vying to be Virginia's next governor — a closely watched contest that could provide an early window on President Donald Trump's popularity — showed their markedly different styles in a debate Thursday.
Frontrunner Ed Gillespie, a moderate GOP insider who advised former President George W. Bush, largely ignored attacks against him in the debate ahead of a June primary, instead focusing on pocketbook issues such as lowering taxes.
"As we talk here tonight, Virginia is in the bottom ten states of economic growth and that is just infuriating to me," Gillespie said in the debate at Liberty University in Lynchburg.
But Trump's onetime campaign chairman in Virginia, Corey Stewart, directed most of his anger directly at Gillespie throughout the hourlong debate. Stewart sought to portray Gillespie, who made a lucrative career as a lobbyist and consultant, as a party elitist beholden to deep-pocketed special interests.
Like Trump did during his campaign, Stewart vowed a muscular anti-illegal immigration policy if elected.
"If you're looking for somebody who is not afraid of controversy, and if you're looking for a winner, then I am your candidate," Stewart said.
A third candidate, Virginia Beach state Sen. Frank Wagner, bashed both candidates as too inexperienced to lead the state and said he was the only one willing to make tough choices — such as supporting a gas tax increase to pay for transportation projects.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states set to elect governors later this year and the contests could be a referendum on Trump's popularity ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. On Tuesday, a Republican won a single-digit victory in a special Kansas House election where GOP candidates have dominated in the past.
While Trump has not yet indicated whether he will make an endorsement in the Virginia primary, he casts a long shadow on the race.
Gillespie, whose style and temperament are almost diametrically opposed to Trump's, has largely tried to steer clear of the new president. Virginia was the only state in the South that Trump lost and he could be a liability for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the general election.
Stewart has been a stalwart defender of the president. In recent weeks his campaign has become increasingly focused on his efforts preserving Confederate symbols and statues, a bid many view as an appeal to disaffected white voters who supported Trump.
Thursday's debate gave the gubernatorial hopefuls a chance to make a direct pitch to evangelicals, a critical voting bloc for any Republican statewide candidate. Liberty was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and routinely hosts high-profile politicians of both parties.
Virginia's Republicans and Democrats will both pick their candidates on June 13. Democrats are set to choose between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.