RICHMOND | Virginia's gubernatorial candidates clashed over issues such as climate change, guns and taxes during an often-pointed debate that was highlighted by an exchange in which one candidate accused his opponent of "lying."
Democrat R. Creigh Deeds made the accusation while answering a question about climate change, saying Republican Robert F. McDonnell has willfully and repeatedly misstated his stance on cap-and-trade legislation.
Mr. McDonnell after the debate fired back. "I found that to be below the dignity of a gubernatorial campaign for Creigh to say that. I'm sure he's probably not happy that he said that tonight," he said.
Mr. Deeds backed off the harsh wording after the debate.
"Maybe that was too strong of a word for a debate format," he said. "The fact of the matter is, he's a one-trick pony. He keeps telling the same untruths over and over again."
The hourlong debate was the third between the candidates in what is considered one of the most important elections in the nation this year.
Mr. Deeds, who heard groans from the crowd during the candidates' last debate for his frequent mention of a 20-year-old graduate thesis Mr. McDonnell wrote that said in part that homosexuality, working women and abortion were detrimental to American families, did not mention the thesis during Monday's debate. Instead, he made veiled references to Mr. McDonnell's "rigid social agenda."
Mr. Deeds repeatedly referred to his biography, discussing his roots in rural Bath County and how they shaped his views on issues such as education and guns.
In his closing statement, Mr. Deeds indirectly addressed a point that emerged in the campaign last week, when Sheila Johnson, the billionaire co-founder of the BET cable-TV network who has endorsed Mr. McDonnell, was seen on a video mocking his distinctive halting manner of speaking.
"I'm not the most eloquent speaker, but, like Harry Truman, I tell the truth and work hard to get things done," Mr. Deeds said. He referred to Mr. McDonnell as a "smooth talker," adding that the Republican candidate has "undergone a pretty serious political makeover, but he just can't escape his record."
Mr. McDonnell frequently attempted to steer the debate toward taxes, which his campaign has emphasized since Mr. Deeds indicated he would sign a bill raising taxes to fund transportation if the bill was part of a bipartisan compromise.
Mr. McDonnell said several times that Mr. Deeds had voted to raise $3.5 billion in taxes in the past five years and that he would need at least $1 billion in new taxes to fund transportation improvements.
"I think we need to make government simpler, more accountable, keep taxes low," Mr. McDonnell said.
Mr. Deeds rejected the claim, at one point saying Mr. McDonnell was again raising the specter of the "bogeyman."
A question about climate-change legislation sparked the sparring over "lying." In response to Mr. McDonnell's assertion that Mr. Deeds supports a pending cap-and-trade bill in Congress, Mr. Deeds said: "Bob continues to talk about the cap-and-trade bill, and he's spending literally millions of dollars lying to the voters of Virginia about it. Factcheck.org has also called him on that and said it's just not true. I've said on a number of occasions, but he continues to insist that it is [true]. And I guess he wants this campaign to be decided on issues he's going to lie about. I can't control that."
The cap-and-trade proposal requires polluters to either reduce their emissions or offset their pollutants by paying others to reduce their emissions.
As they have in previous debates, the two disagreed on closing the state's so-called "gun-show loophole" that allows people to purchase weapons in such arenas without a background check.
Mr. Deeds said he has supported closing the loophole at the behest of the families of the 2007 Virginia Tech attacks.
Mr. McDonnell said that while he didn't support the bill, he worked with Gov. Tim Kaine to tighten mental health restrictions for gun sales.
Mr. Deeds said he would renew an executive order ending discrimination based on sexual orientation in the government work force. Mr. McDonnell, as attorney general, issued an opinion declaring a similar executive order issued by Mr. Kaine unconstitutional.
Mr. McDonnell said the law was unconstitutional not because of its social implications, but because it violated the separation of powers.
The debate was widely seen as crucial to Mr. Deeds' chances of closing a persistent gap in the polls that narrowed last month after news reports about Mr. McDonnell's thesis but has again showed signs of growing.
A poll conducted last week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for the Richmond Times-Dispatch had Mr. McDonnell ahead 48 percent to 40 percent in the race. The poll of 625 likely voters had a margin of error of four percentage points.
The debate, during which audience members had their questions posed to the candidates, was dubbed the "People's Debate." It was sponsored by AARP Virginia and the League of Women Voters of Virginia and held at the studios at WCVE-TV, Richmond's PBS affiliate.
Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," moderated the debate, which was nationally televised on CSPAN 3. Attendance at the event was by invitation only.
The fourth and final debate is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Roanoke.