Jeff Schapiro

In a 1981 debate before the Virginia Manufacturers Association in Williamsburg, Chuck Robb laid waste to Republican claims that he was squishy on issues, crisply listing what he was for and against. Even his opponent, Marshall Coleman, who years later would become a regular at Robb’s Christmas party, seemed impressed.

Sixteen years on, Democrat Don Beyer signaled his candidacy really was in trouble when he used an appearance with Jim Gilmore before the Virginia Bar Association at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to offer his own version of the Republican’s car-tax rollback — after weeks of attacking the Gilmore scheme for what it turned out to be: balky and very expensive.

In 2005, Republican Jerry Kilgore, at a chamber of commerce debate with Tim Kaine in Fairfax County, raised doubts about his anti-abortion credentials when he became tongue-tied on a simple question: Would he sign into law legislation banning abortion in Virginia if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade? He dismissed it as a hypothetical.

In a Virginia gubernatorial campaign, debates can matter. They can change the trajectory of a race by altering perceptions, raising — or lowering — expectations, or redirecting the narrative.

The 2017 campaign, depending whether you ask a Democrat or Republican, demands all three.

And whether that happens could depend on questions put to Ed Gillespie and Ralph Northam by moderator Judy Woodruff of “PBS NewsHour” at their first debate Saturday morning at The Homestead in Bath County. The audience — again — will be the worthies of the VBA.

Democrat Northam and Republican Gillespie will do their darndest to stick with a script. They want to minimize risk — and the potential for damage. And they will do so relying on rhetorical flourishes, stagecraft and data that have been tested to provoke a predictable response.

In other words, the debate can be a setting in which Gillespie and Northam are their least authentic. But when trapped on a platform for an hour or so, with their utterances live-streamed and reported in real time on social media, with the cocked gun that is the timer’s stopwatch pointed at their heads, even the most disciplined candidates can become undisciplined.

For Gillespie that will be fully tested on the topic he has artfully avoided: Donald Trump.

Gillespie has yet to say publicly whether he supports the president, where he differs with him and how Gillespie reconciles his Establishment brand of Republicanism with Trump’s populist-authoritarian version. No issue currently brings this into sharper focus than health care and the GOP’s failure to agree on an alternative to Obamacare.

The implosion Tuesday in the U.S. Senate of Republicans’ latest repeal effort means that health care will remain a front-burner issue in the gubernatorial campaign — and not just as a massive external event that is the latest measure of the nationalization of Virginia politics.

Inertia in Washington, D.C., compounds uncertainty in Richmond, where divided government denied Terry McAuliffe a Medicaid-financed expansion of Obamacare that would have meant billions of dollars for the state. That could have established a higher minimum handout under Medicaid, should it be overhauled.

Now Virginia faces the possibility of receiving fewer dollars than it currently collects — and at a time when the cost to the state of providing health care for the poor is the fastest-growing item in its budget.

But Gillespie needs to say more about health care and not just as a measure of his attitude toward Trump, with whom he seemed to cozy up ever so slightly Monday after months of avoiding him. Gillespie said — in TV news tape circulated by Northam’s staff — that Virginia needs a GOP governor to work with the Trump White House.

Health care also is a yardstick of Gillespie’s familiarity with the nuts and bolts of Virginia government, an entity about which he knows comparatively little having made his name and fortune as a D.C. insider. Democrat McAuliffe, of course, has a similar résumé and was similarly unfamiliar with the state bureaucracy. And it cost him time and momentum.

Northam, who, as a legislator-turned-lieutenant governor knows his way around the state Capitol, knows, too, that nothing makes Gillespie squirm quite like regular, frequent and nonstop references to Trump, usually paired with health care.

Since the primary in mid-June, Northam’s campaign has been pretty much one note, with his more robust presence on social media seemingly Trump-centric.

His handlers get testy over suggestions — increasingly echoed by Republicans — that Northam talks about Trump to the exclusion of state-specific issues. They counter that Northam has had roll-outs on a dozen issues, including — on Tuesday — ways to revive the long-sputtering rural economy.

But before Northam, a physician, did that, he sought to capitalize on the GOP’s embarrassment in the Senate by proposing a bipartisan state study on health care costs, with a focus on the use of federal dollars. There’s no way Northam gives up the Trump card — not in a state Trump lost and where his unpopularity is increasing.

Linking Gillespie to Trump also is a way for Northam to divert attention from his own difficulties, most notably, a muddled position on twin natural-gas pipelines that would slice across Virginia’s mountainous western spine. Northam seems incapable of an I’m-for-it or I’m-against-it answer.

The projects are a divisive issue within the Democratic Party. McAuliffe favors them as a source of jobs and cheap energy. Environmentalists oppose them as a scar on the landscape that would promote further dependence on pollution-producing carbon fuel.

Northam wants to be seen as friends of both McAuliffe, who can pump green into Northam’s depleted treasury, and greens who are among the most enthusiastic Democratic voters.

The debate Saturday is a chance for Northam to say whose friendship counts most.

But someone has to ask.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Richmond.com. Listen to his analysis 8:45 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).

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