- Associated Press - Saturday, April 22, 2017

GOOCHLAND, Va. (AP) - The front-runner for the Republican nomination in Virginia’s closely watched race for governor expressed lukewarm support for President Donald Trump at a GOP debate Saturday in Goochland.

In a sign he may be looking past the June primary towards the general election in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, Ed Gillespie was critical of crude comments Trump has made about women and largely shrugged off pointed questions about his loyalty to the new president. Trump lost Virginia and no Republican has won a statewide campaign in the Old Dominion since 2009.

Corey Stewart, a conservative firebrand and former chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia, assailed Gillespie for being quick to condemn the Republican presidential candidate after a recording was released in which Trump boasted about groping women.

Stewart also blasted Gillespie for not campaigning in person with Trump or being part of a Virginia “leadership team” the Trump campaign announced weeks before the election that included many prominent state GOP lawmakers.

Gillespie responded that he supported “the ticket” last year and campaigned with now-Vice President Mike Pence. But he added that as a husband and father of two daughters he was offended by the comments Trump made in the 2005 Access Hollywood tape.

“I want to make sure that we try and respect all Americans,” Gillespie said, who added that Trump deserved credit for apologizing for the remarks made on the tape.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states electing new governors this year and the contests could provide an early window into Trump’s popularity as president.

Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and White House adviser to President George W. Bush, has a large cash advantage over his GOP rivals and has been leading in public polls.

Saturday was the last debate where all three GOP candidates were scheduled to attend. Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner trained much of their fire on Gillespie, saying the former high-powered Washington lobbyist was running a disingenuous campaign.

Wagner, a veteran legislator, said Gillespie had repeatedly misled voters about the potential impact of a modest income tax reduction he was proposing

“Ed, be honest, please,” Wagner said.

And Stewart accused Gillespie of supporting government mandates on health insurance, something Gillespie denied.

“He’s been in Washington too long,” Stewart said.

Gillespie largely ignored the attacks and instead focused his criticism on Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perreillo, the two Democrats running for governor.

Virginians can vote in either party’s primary on June 13.

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