Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin sparred over COVID-19 vaccine mandates, abortion rights, tax policy and more during the first debate of Virginia’s governor’s race on Thursday night.

A new 8News/Emerson College poll released ahead of the debate showed the candidates are neck and neck.

On the night before early voting for the November 2 election begins in Virginia, the candidates made their key differences clear on the debate stage.

Thursday’s debate, which was held at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, was moderated by Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, with panelists Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst, and WTVR-TV anchor Candace Burns.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates take center stage

The first questions of the night focused on vaccine mandates, specifically for workers and school children. Both candidates have encouraged Virginians to get the vaccine but Youngkin said he doesn’t believe they should be required.

When asked if he would challenge President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for companies employing over 100 people, either in court or by urging businesses to defy the order, Youngkin did not directly respond.

“I don’t believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate that to everyone, that we have to take the vaccine,” the Virginia GOP nominee said. “Again, I would encourage everyone to get the vaccine, but I don’t think he has the authority to do so.” 

McAuliffe was asked about adding the coronavirus vaccine to the list of vaccines required for school children in Virginia. While noting the vaccine has not been authorized for those under 12, the former Virginia governor said he would back such a change for students currently eligible for the shots.

“Absolutely. You bet I would. I want everyone vaccinated. This covid is not going away,” McAuliffe said.

A new Texas law brings abortion rights in Virginia to the forefront

Since Texas enacted a new law effectively banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, McAuliffe has put abortion rights at the forefront of his campaign.

Virginia allows abortions during the second trimester and in the third trimester in extreme circumstances when three doctors conclude “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

Page, the moderator, noted that some critics of the law say it “puts an undue burden on rural areas.” She asked McAuliffe whether he would back legislation that would require only one doctor to certify a procedure after the second trimester instead of three, and reduce the standard so abortions could be conducted after a second trimester if there would be damage to a woman’s health.

“The problems you have in rural parts of our state is there are not three doctors. It puts women in rural areas at a real disadvantage,” McAuliffe responded. “And a woman’s life has to be in danger, has to be certified, and if you have a legitimate doctor that says this woman’s life is in danger, then of course I would support that. I would do anything I can.”

Youngkin repeated that he’s pro-life, though he supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger. 

Youngkin didn’t directly respond when asked if he would support an abortion ban after a fetal heartbeat can be detected with those exceptions. However, he made it clear he wouldn’t sign a more restrictive law like the one passed in Texas.

“I would not sign the Texas bill today,” Youngkin said. “The Texas bill also is unworkable and confusing.”

Youngkin said he believes a bill banning abortions at the point when a fetus can feel pain, “would be appropriate.”

McAuliffe accused of softening stance on police reform

McAuliffe appeared to walk back support for a controversial bill to end qualified immunity for police in Virginia. The legal defense that makes it difficult to win civil lawsuits against officers has split moderate and progressive Democrats in the state for months.

During the Democratic Primary, McAuliffe said he supported eliminating qualified immunity, which Youngkin has firmly opposed.

Asked about the policy again on Thursday night, McAuliffe said, “No I would not end it. It’s called qualified immunity for a reason. Any officer who is acting in good faith should and will have the full protections of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We don’t want anyone going out there putting their lives at risk and us not having their back. But if you have a law enforcement officer who breaks the law, that’s what qualified immunity is. That’s why we call it qualified immunity. But I will always step up and protect law enforcement. Because they’re out there every day protecting us.”

Candidates agree to accept election results

Youngkin broke with former President Donald Trump when asked about his stance on election integrity. He said he doesn’t believe there has been significant fraud in previous elections.

Asked about recent comments from Trump suggesting Virginia Democrats may try to cheat and steal the election, Youngkin said, “No. I think we are going to have a clean, fair election and I fully expect to win.”

Both candidates said they would accept the results of the election no matter who the winner is.

Candidates split on vision for clean energy and the economy

Both Youngkin and McAuliffe have sought to put their ability to recruit jobs and boost the economy at the center of their campaigns.

However, the debate highlighted key differences in how they would approach economic policy and clean energy.

Youngkin has proposed a package of sweeping tax cuts and has pledged to cut business regulations.

McAuliffe wants to increase the minimum wage and provide paid sick leave to more Virginia workers.

Youngkin clearly opposed the recently passed Virginia Clean Economy Act, which seeks to end the sale of all electricity that doesn’t come from renewable sources by 2045. Youngkin said the timeline is unrealistic and will put the state’s electric grid at risk.

McAuliffe, on the other hand, supports the law and wants to accelerate the timeline to 2035. He said green energy will be critical for economic growth.

What’s next for the candidates?

The candidates will debate again on Sept. 28. Third-party candidate Princess Blanding will be on the ballot but was excluded from both debates.

Virginia voters will cast their ballot for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in the Nov. 2 election. All 100 House of Delegates seats and certain local races will also be on ballots.

Early voting starts in Virginia on Friday.

Watch the full debate here: