- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello both claimed Thursday to be Virginia Democrats’ best option for winning over rural voters who supported President Donald Trump in last year’s election.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidates met in Roanoke for their second debate of the closely watched primary campaign, with the June 13 election less than six weeks away. Focusing on plans to help economically depressed parts of the state, like Southwest and Southside Virginia, both said they were confident they could win over rural voters who usually vote Republican.

Northam, the party’s establishment favorite, cited his rural upbringing on the Eastern Shore and said he’s a proven “fighter” who has done well in Republican-leaning areas during past elections.

Perriello noted his experience representing a congressional district with many rural voters, and said his anti-elitist message resonates with Trump supporters.

“Democrats ask why I’m spending so much time in red country, or Trump country. It’s because there’s a lot of pain there and there’s a lot of potential there,” Perriello said

But both candidates were also quick to point out their progressive bona fides, as Virginia’s voter-rich urban and suburban areas will most likely determine who wins the Democratic primary. Northam and Perriello each bemoaned the Republican health care bill pushed through the U.S. House on Thursday, aimed at dismantling former President Barack Obama’s health care system.

Northam highlighted his longstanding support of abortion rights and gun-control, areas where Perriello has been criticized by some special interest groups for votes and actions he took in Congress.

Northam said Virginians “deserve a leader that will stand up unwaveringly for progressive, democratic values.”

Perriello played up his opposition to two planned natural gas pipelines and highlighted his pledge not to accept money from energy giant Dominion Resources, the most politically powerful company in state politics that is often at odds with environmentalists.

The debate was mostly cordial and without wide disagreement on most issues, but the pair did clash occasionally.

Northam called Perriello’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy unrealistic, given the GOP-controlled General Assembly, while Perriello criticized Northam for not yet releasing the full details of his tax plan.

One of the most pointed exchanges of the one-hour debate came when the lieutenant governor took issue with Perriello for questioning Northam’s proposal to require community service in return for a free workforce training.

“So you’re telling me that people like me shouldn’t serve in the United States Army or shouldn’t give back public service because it’s more expensive to our society. Really?” Northam, a doctor who served in the Army, asked Perriello.

“I think you just lost the audience, doctor,” Perriello responded as some members of the crowd groaned.

“No I didn’t,” Northam responded quickly.

Virginia is one of only two states electing new governors this year and the race is getting national attention as a potential early referendum on Trump’s presidency. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and State Sen. Frank Wagner, are seeking the GOP nomination.

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