WASHINGTON (CNN) - Virginia's two gubernatorial candidates clashed Thursday over a mix of state and national issues in a televised debate that saw Democrat Creigh Deeds distance himself from President Obama and Republican Bob McDonnell continue to fight back against charges that he's a divisive social conservative.
It was the second of four scheduled debates in the Virginia governor's race.
Deeds was asked directly if he considers himself an "Obama Democrat." The state senator from rural Bath County paused before saying he is proud to have the president's support, but would prefer to describe himself as "a Creigh Deeds Democrat."
He said he has expressed concerns to the president over the Employee Free Choice Act, health care legislation, and the size of the national debt.
Deeds was also questioned on whether he believes some criticism of the president is motivated by racism. He called Joe Wilson's outburst on the House floor last week "unprecedented" and said: "Clearly there's a hint of racism in some of the opposition to Barack Obama, that is crystal clear."
McDonnell, meanwhile, once again found himself on the defensive over his 20-year-old master's thesis, in which he criticized working women as "detrimental" to healthy families.
Deeds said McDonnell wants to restrict abortion rights and opposes contraceptive counseling for married couples. McDonnell, who wrote the thesis when he was 34 years old, said his views have changed, and that the campaign should be about economic issues, not social ones.
He pointed to the female staffers he hired when he became Virginia attorney general in 2006, and to his own family - particularly his daughter Jeanine, who served as an Army lieutenant in Iraq.
"Creigh, there you go again," McDonnell said, attempting to channel Ronald Reagan. "I'm frankly pretty insulted that you would say that my daughter, that I supported and loved for 28 years to go fight in Iraq, that I don't support women."
The topic of transportation funding consumed much of the debate, which was sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and took place in the state's most populous county, where one in seven voters reside.
McDonnell promised to not raise taxes and said he could find ways to fund transportation with some "innovative" ideas, such as his proposal to sell off Virginia's state-run liquor stores, which he said would raise millions.
Asked why he opposed former Democratic governor Mark Warner's 2004 bipartisan budget legislation - a tax hike that rescued the state budget and is regarded as having saved the Virginia's bond rating - McDonnell replied that he is simply against raising taxes.
Deeds seemed to hedge on whether he plans to raise taxes for transportation. "No, I'm not going to raise taxes," he said. But he quickly added, "I am the only person on this dais who will sign a transportation plan that raises new money."
After the debate, the McDonnell campaign released a new TV ad accusing his rival of having no plan for transportation.
Both men paid homage to the voters and business leaders of northern Virginia, who hold significant economic and political sway in the state. Deeds called northern Virginia "the cash cow that feeds the state." McDonnell called the region "the Internet capital of the world."