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by Brandon Jarvis

After months of back and forth comments over debate participation, gubernatorial candidates Glenn Youngkin (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) met for a face-to-face debate Thursday night in the town of Grundy at the Appalachian School of Law. Both candidates continued the direct attacks that their campaigns have been waging throughout the summer. 

During the debate, Youngkin would not directly answer an abortion question, McAuliffe avoided a question on repealing Right to Work laws, and both candidates said they would not support repealing qualified immunity for law enforcement. 

They sparred with each other constantly throughout the debate, often speaking over their time limit or dropping little remarks in tight gaps of time. “Relax Glenn I don’t want you to pass out,” McAuliffe said to Youngkin after he kept talking over his limit.

 “I think this might be the new model of debating moving forward,” said Richard Meagher, a professor of political science at Randolph Macon College. “I think that the Trump debates kind of reset what people’s expectations are.” 

McAuliffe seemed comfortable on the stage, taking advantage of his experience on stage to try and knock Youngkin off message. But Youngkin, the political novice, held his own. “I don’t know that he overwhelmed anybody or was really impressive,” Meagher said before noting that he, “provided credible answers. He certainly didn’t embarrass himself.”

McAuliffe, a veteran in Virginia politics, stayed on message for the most part and hammered home the same points throughout the night that his campaign has been using for months. “He is who he is at this point,” Meagher said of McAuliffe’s performance, noting that he seems a little bit more polished this go-around compared to his first campaign in 2013.  

McAuliffe repeatedly tied Youngkin to Trump and said that Youngkin would support the ban of abortion in Virginia. Youngkin pushed back by saying he would not support the same law recently enacted in Texas because he believes in exceptions for incest and rape. He avoided answering what abortion restrictions he would support. 

After Youngkin did not directly answer what abortion restrictions he would support in Virginia, McAuliffe asked the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, if she was “satisfied with that answer.”

“I think that is the answer I am going to get,” Page responded.

McAuliffe said he would support legislation that would have reduced the number of doctors needed to sign off on a late-term abortion if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. McAuliffe said reducing the number from three required doctors to just one would be beneficial in rural areas that only have one doctor.

Youngkin said he does not believe there was “significant” election fraud in Virginia’s recent elections and would “absolutely” accept the results in November if McAuliffe wins. He also touted his vaccine PSA video but stopped short of supporting mandates for vaccines. Something McAuliffe, who said he supports mandates for anyone 12 years and older, continuously hits him for on the campaign. 

“This is the dance that Youngkin has had to do since he got the nomination,” Meagher said. “How do you appeal to red-meat conservative rural Virginians who hate mandates… and appeal to moderates,” he continued. “It is going to be increasingly difficult for him,” Meagher said, noting that it provides ammunition for the Democrats to attack him. 

McAuliffe could have bothered his own base after changing his stance on qualified immunity. During the primary, he expressed support for repealing the law that protects police officers from lawsuits. 

“McAuliffe does have to watch out for two things,” Meagher said. The progressive candidate in the race, Princess Blanding, and Democratic turnout dropping. “How many Democrats stay home?” Meagher asked. “That is always the big problem in these off-year elections.” 

Youngkin also said he opposed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, while McAuliffe said he wanted to be more aggressive and speed the plan up by 10 years. The legislation in its current form would require all electricity to come from renewable sources.

McAuliffe said he supports vaccine requirements for anyone 12 years and old. Youngkin touted the video PSA he released in Northern Virginia and strongly urged people to get the vaccine, but he has pushed back against any vaccine requirement saying it should be an individual’s choice. 

Youngkin also said he does not believe that President Joe Biden does not have the authority for the recent COVID-19 vaccine mandates he issued, but did not directly say if he would try and sue the federal government to intervene as governor.

At the end of the night, Meagher didn’t declare either candidate a winner. “I would say it was probably a tie,” he said. “I don’t think this resets the race in any way,” he continued while saying that Youngkin may have been able to gain more from this race by introducing himself to more potential voters that did not know him. “They both were fine but Youngkin needed more.” 

Polling as recent as Thursday shows McAuliffe with a slight lead in the race. “Statistically speaking, the poll isn’t telling you that McAuliffe is going to win or Youngkin is going to lose. It is really saying it is a dead heat,” said Emerson College Polling Director Spencer Kimball. The Emerson poll showed McAuliffe with a four-point lead. 

Early voting begins Friday, Sept. 17 for the Nov. 2 election. 

Listen to post-debate analysis from Brandon Jarvis of Virginia Scope and Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph Macon College, below:

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By vascope