Washington (CNN) – They came ready, aimed and fired – calmly.
On Saturday, the first U.S. Senate debate between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican nominee Ed Gillespie was marked by zings - but also political politesse.
During civil exchanges across 90-minutes stood two Virginians pushing different ideas but also outsize caricatures of the other.
On one side: Gillespie's branding of Warner as a political lapdog for President Barack Obama who's responsible for job-killing policies and who promised to be independent – but is not. On the other side: Warner's attacks against Gillespie's resume that includes lobbying and stints in Republican Party partisan posts.
The debate was held in neighboring West Virginia. Its opening shots were fired within the opening minutes.
Gillespie decried a shrinking economy, job loss and business closings resulting from a growing government, "squeezing too many Virginians."
"I appreciate Senator Warner's service to our Commonwealth," Gillespie said. "But unfortunately, his votes in the Senate have tightened that squeeze on hard-working Virginians and made it harder for the unemployed to find work."
"In voting with President Obama 97-percent of the time, he's not been the senator he said he would be," Gillespie said. "Instead of being an independent voice for us, he's been a blank check for President Obama."
Warner, running for a second term, highlighted Gillespie's former tenure as a lobbyist and in key Republican positions. Among Gillespie's previous jobs: former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a senior aide to President George W. Bush.
"He's spent his entire career as a DC lobbyist and a partisan operative," Warner said. "He views every issue through the lens of Republicans versus Democrats. He even went on TV and called himself a 'partisan warrior.'"
"I got to tell you, I work there," Warner added. "The last thing Washington needs is another partisan warrior."
As with any political sport, each candidate's offense also required a good defense.
On Gillespie's charge that Warner carries the president's water nearly all the time, Warner responded: "Let's set the record straight on this statistic that's used. Independent political observers have called it misleading and not representative of my record."
"When I disagree with the president, I stand up," the senator told the audience.
For his part, Gillespie picked apart the hyper-partisan lobbyist caricature by employing a common tactic: turning perceived weaknesses into strengths.
Citing his "experiences of having worked on Capitol Hill, having been a party chairman, having advised private sector people how to get things done with private, with bipartisan support in Washington," Gillespie said, "I think it would allow me to stand up to the special interest groups, to standup to Senate leaders, to stand up to a White House for Virginians and keep my promises to the people of Virginia.
"I believe my experiences would make me effective on Day 1."
The candidates also debated several issues.
On job creation, Gillespie highlighted his five-point agenda to, among other things, create jobs, raise take-home pay, and hold down health-care costs.
"If you're for economic growth, you're for me," the Republican candidate said.
Warner pushed a bipartisan approach to lowering the national debt and taking on tax and entitlement reform.
"What I didn't hear from my opponent was any acknowledgment that he was a cheerleader for the Bush-Cheney economic policies," the senator said.
And the two men sparred over the nation's health care law.
"We've seen the stagnant wages and the lost jobs as a result, for example, the Congressional Budget Office says that Obamacare – which Sen. Warner worked to pass – will mean," Gillespie said. He advocated replacing the law "with market-oriented reforms."
Warner criticized the law's rollout, but said it could be tweaked.
"What I hear from Virginians is they're tired of this issue being used as a political football. And they actually want to see it fixed," Warner said. "They don't want to go back to the days where people with pre-existing conditions couldn't get health care, or women were charged differently than men."
"Now the Obamacare rollout was a disaster. But what I've laid out are actual specific plans on how we can improve it.
The candidates did find agreement on some subjects.
On dealing with Vladimir Putin, debate moderator and PBS anchor Judy Woodruff asked: what should be done to address actions by the Russian President regarding Ukraine and has Obama has been too timid?
"I think the president should have acted sooner and tougher on sanctions on Russia," Warner said.
"I agree, he should have acted sooner," Gillespie said. "I agree we should stiffen the sanctions."
Regarding the undocumented children from Central American countries who've surged into the United States via the southern border, should they be returned? Some of them, Woodruff noted, are being kept at a facility in Virginia not far from the debate site.
"I think they are due some level of process," Warner said. "And that process will result, probably, in some of those kids going back."
Gillespie responded: "The most compassionate thing that we can do, is to once they've been afforded the process and we've expedited the process, is for them to return to their parents."
And regarding Iran, if a nuclear deal can't be reached – would the men support U.S. military action against the country?
"I believe that it's important that the United States never take that option off of the table," Gillespie said.
"On this issue, I think my opponent and I generally agree," Warner said. "I think no options should be taken off the table."
Gillespie faces an uphill battle to unseat the incumbent Warner. A recent Roanoke College poll shows the senator holding a 25-point lead.