GOP gubernatorial hopefuls play nice at first debate
By ALAN SUDERMAN
Feb. 18, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republican hopefuls for governor played nice during their first debate Saturday, a break from some of the pointed attacks that have taken place online and in the media.
Corey Stewart, a one-time chairman of President Donald Trump's campaign in Virginia, has consistently attacked GOP frontrunner Ed Gillespie in interviews and on Twitter and Facebook. But when the two shared a stage Saturday at Charlottesville's Paramount Theatre, Stewart had not a mean word to say about his opponent.
Instead the pair, along with two other Republicans running for governor and other GOP statewide candidates, stuck mostly to conservative talking points on issues like health care and higher education costs.
"Really, it was too cordial," Stewart said after the debate, which only featured a handful of questions and speaking opportunities. "Just wait until the next one. We're going to blast him good, I promise."
Stewart has largely mirrored Trump's brash campaign style and hardline positions on issues like immigration. Stewart has also frequently insulted Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and lobbyist, as an out-of-touch Washington insider. Stewart has dubbed him "Establishment Ed," much in the same vein that Trump assigned his opponents with demeaning nicknames.
Virginia is one of only two states electing governors this year and the contest is seen by many as a potential referendum on Trump's first year in office and an early test of opposition groups aligned against him.
But while the Virginia race has many aspects that echo the 2016 presidential contest, a pugnacious first GOP primary debate was not one of them.
Instead the crowd of about 100 at the event, which was organized by conservative millennials, heard mostly party-line discussion about the need to lower university costs and undo the Affordable Care Act.
The candidates did break from the traditional law-and-order conservative viewpoint when discussing the widespread use of heroin and prescription painkillers, saying there needed to be a greater focus on treatment. Gillespie said after the debate he was interested to see every GOP candidate embracing a more comprehensive approach and not suggesting to "just jail our way out" of the problem.
Stewart also announced that he supported decriminalizing marijuana for people caught with small amounts. Fellow GOP gubernatorial candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner, has also said he supports decriminalizing, as has Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
The GOP gubernatorial candidates, whom also include state Sen. Frank Wagner, also talked about the need to make Virginia more business friendly.
Bob Charlton, a Stewart supporter from Richmond, said he was glad the candidates stuck to policy and avoided personal attacks.
"I don't like that, not against each other," Charlton said.
Both parties will pick a candidate in a June primary. On the Democratic side, Northam is facing former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.