MCLEAN, Va. — The closest thing to hard-edged partisan sniping during Tuesday night’s gubernatorial election debate came when Democrat Ralph Northam took a dig at Republican Ed Gillespie over health care and implied that Gillespie hadn’t done the kind of work to care for disadvantaged people that Northam, a pediatrician, has.
“I didn’t remember seeing you there,” Northam said of a medical clinic where he has volunteered.
Gillespie didn’t respond in kind. Instead, he complimented Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, on his humanitarian work, and the two moved on.
If the hour-long debate was notable for anything, it was that the two candidates were as friendly and polite with each other in a race with national implications at a time when the broader political conversation is so frenzied and angry.
During a break halfway through, the two men joked with each other. Their exchanges were about as substantive as possible in a fast-moving format, and at the end they shared a warm handshake. Debate moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News commented on the positive tone.
“Virginia deserves some civility right now, especially after what we watched on the 16th,” Northam said afterward, referring to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville last month by a white supremacist that killed one and injured a few dozen others. The rally was held on the same day that neo-Nazis and KKK members gathered in that city to protest the proposed removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Gillespie and Northam are both temperamentally low key, so major fireworks were not exactly expected. But the political dynamics of the race also have not incentivized risk-taking. A number of recent polls show the race to be close, with Northam holding a 3-point lead in the Real Clear Politics polling average. Voters will go to the polls to choose a governor on Nov. 7.
And both candidates are trying to avoid alienating the extremes of their party while also appealing to middle-of-the road voters. For Gillespie, that means distancing himself from President Trump in subtle ways without explicitly repudiating the president. Northam is dealing with agitation among progressives over a proposed gas pipeline, and is trying to balance a hunger on the left for opposing everything Trump does with a concern among others that the next governor should be able to work with the administration to benefit the state.
Northam gave qualified support for the pipeline, but pending a review process, leading Todd to say he couldn’t tell if Northam actually supported it or not.
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And Northam said he would “work with [Trump]” to try to end the budget sequestration that has hurt many Pentagon contractors in Virginia. He said that along with his opposition to a government shutdown, there are “some things that we share in common.” He then tried to pivot and hang the Trump albatross around Gillespie’s neck, listing a number of actions taken by the president that he finds abhorrent, and linking the Republican candidate with Trump through his support for those items.
Trump may be broadly unpopular in Virginia, but still has strong support from a significant number of active voters. That’s why Gillespie only narrowly won the primary this past summer over Corey Stewart, who campaigned in support of Confederate statues and was a vocal Trump backer.
When Todd asked Gillespie if he wanted Trump to come campaign with him or for him in the commonwealth, Gillespie sidestepped the question but indicated he didn’t need the president to come. “I’ll take help from anybody anywhere,” Gillespie said, but then added that he thinks Virginians “want to hear” from him. He said that if he tried to tie Northam to national Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that wouldn’t add jobs, ease traffic or make college more affordable.
Gillespie has avoided condemning Trump’s response to Charlottesville, but referred dismissively during the debate to “these KKK members with their shields and their torches” and described them as “the presence of evil.”
Related slideshow: White nationalists march with torches in Charlottesville, Va. >>>
Both candidates also threw some cold water on health care proposals being put forward by some in their own party. Gillespie said the current Republican plan being debated in the Senate — the Graham-Cassidy bill — “falls short” of protecting Virginia from being punished for not expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. But he later qualified that by saying he was not taking a position for or against the legislation, which Congress may vote on this month.
And Northam said he does not support single-payer, government-run health care, an idea that is gathering momentum among a number of Democratic senators with presidential ambitions.
“This country is not ready for single-payer, in my mind,” Northam told reporters afterward.
The meat of Gillespie’s case against Northam is that Virginia has fallen behind the rest of the country economically and needs to cut taxes — “responsibly,” he is always careful to note — to help create a business environment more friendly to small businesses.
“My policies will get us unstuck,” Gillespie said.
Northam’s campaign is focused on drawing a contrast in profiles between their candidate and Gillespie, starting with Gillespie’s work in the past as a highly paid lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and then tying him to Trump.
“An Army doctor and a pediatric neurologist who was volunteer director of a children’s hospice is compelling, and compares exceedingly well to someone who’s background is a Washington, D.C., lobbyist,” said Northam pollster Geoff Garin on a Monday conference call.
But on that same call, Northam’s campaign director, Brad Komar, acknowledged that Democratic hopes for an overwhelming win in Virginia that would repudiate Trump were overly optimistic.
“This is going to be a close race,” Komar said.
Tuesday’s showdown was the second of three debates. The third will be held Oct. 9 in Wise, a town in Virginia’s southwest region.
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