Virginia Republicans hoping to upset Hillary Clinton's former running mate in a U.S. Senate race heaped praise on President Donald Trump at a debate Thursday while arguing over who would be more loyal to the president if elected.
Trump was a central focus of the hour-long debate, which pitted a polished young up-and-comer who has the backing of the establishment wing of the state party against an ultra-Trump supporter whose bomb-throwing style mirrors the president's.
Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump state campaign chairman, pitched himself as the most loyal to Trump while attacking opponent Nick Freitas as too thin-skinned to survive a general election contest with Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine.
"When President Trump needed a fighter to stand up for him in Virginia when few elected officials would, I was there," said Stewart.
Stewart was fired from the Trump campaign in 2016 for leading an unauthorized protest at the Republican National Committee headquarters, where Stewart complained that national GOP leaders were not properly supporting Trump after a video surfaced in which he was heard bragging about groping women.
Stewart ran for the GOP primary last year on a platform heavily focused on preserving Confederate monuments and surprised most political watchers by narrowly losing to a much better funded candidate.
Freitas, a state House of Delegates member and former Green Beret who has attracted support from state party leaders, rejected Stewart's suggestions that he disagreed with Trump's agenda. But Freitas has previously said negative things about Trump before he became president and his overarching message to
the crowd of about 200 at Liberty University on Thursday was less focused on the president and more about the need to limit government overreach.
E.W. Jackson, a conservative Chesapeake minister, is also running in the primary.
Freitas and Stewart had a testy exchange when Freitas accused Stewart's campaign staff of mocking Freitas' last name online as something that sounds like it's from the "dollar menu at Taco Bell."
"I fought for my country, I'm every bit as much a citizen as you are," said Freitas.
Stewart mocked Freitas for getting upset.
"If that's all it takes to get under your skin, you've got some major problems," he said.
All three candidates voiced support during the debate for Trump's policies on taxes, immigration and other issues. They also were united in criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, calling it an unfair attack on Trump that should be shut down.
The eventual winner of a GOP nomination will have a tough hill to climb in the general election. Virginia is losing its swing-state status as Democrats continue to win a string of statewide victories. Clinton easily carried the state in 2016 and Gov. Ralph Northam won by nine percentage points last year.
Kaine is viewed as the favorite and is a prodigious fundraiser, helped by his time as Clinton's running mate. And national Republicans will be focused on more competitive races in state's Trump won as they try and maintain control of the U.S. Senate.
Several higher profile Republicans who had previously expressed interest in taking on Kaine — including conservative radio and TV host Laura Ingraham and former GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina — opted not to run.
Liberty University is the nation's most high-profile evangelical college and a frequent campaign stop for national Republicans. School President Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been a stalwart Trump supporter, has endorsed Stewart.
The primary is June 12.