WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie had a heated exchange over women's health issues Saturday during their first debate, with Warner accusing Gillespie of wanting to "ban certain forms of common contraception."
"This is an issue where you're making up my views," Gillespie said, who added that he thinks birth control pills should be available without a prescription. "I believe actually we should make contraceptives easier to obtain."
The two candidates then spoke over each other as Warner accused Gillespie of supporting so-called "personhood" legislation, which would outlaw virtually all abortions by extending the full legal protections to a fetus from at conception. Gillespie said he has never supported such legislation.
The exchange punctuated a 90-minute debate that focused on which candidate has been more partisan while cycling through a range of issues, including immigration, energy, the federal budget, and foreign policy.
Warner blasted the former Republican National Committee chairman for his past lobbying clients, including the scandal-plagued energy company Enron, and said Gillespie would contribute to continued congressional gridlock.
"The last thing Washington needs is a partisan warrior," Warner said.
Gillespie charged Warner, a former Virginia governor, of being a "blank check" for the Obama administration who has not lived up to his bipartisan rhetoric.
"Gov. Warner wouldn't recognize Sen. Warner today," Gillespie said.
Warner said he has frequently "taken arrows" from both the left and the right, and noted that he was endorsed by former Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner. The two are not related.
Gillespie said his time as a political operative and a lobbyist would allow him to stand up to special interest groups.
The two carved out clear policy differences. Warner said he fully supports the Export-Import Bank, which has emerged as a flashpoint in the internal Republican struggle between the business-backed establishment and tea party groups. Gillespie, who has several ties to the business backers of the bank, does not.
Warner also expressed support for same sex-marriage, which Gillespie opposes.
When asked about Gillespie's views on birth control after the debate, Warner told reporters that he was referencing the Republican party's platform while Gillespie was RNC chairman.
The debate took place in front a few hundred Virginia lawyers at the exclusive Greenbrier hotel resort in West Virginia, where the Virginia Bar Association held its annual retreat.
The two multi-millionaires from northern Virginia both opened by touting their humble origins, noting they were the first in their family to attend college.
Warner made his fortune as a cellphone pioneer and is one of the richest members of Congress. Gillespie worked as an aide to former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and was part of the GOP's conservative "Contract with America" congressional movement in the 1990s. He later worked as a lobbyist and consultant for several Fortune 500 companies, and was an adviser to President George W. Bush.
Warner, who raised nearly $5.4 million in the first six months of this year compared with $4.2 million by Gillespie, is considered the front-runner.
But Republicans are hoping President Barack Obama's sagging popularity will help them gain a seat in the Senate. The GOP needs six seats to grab control of the chamber.
Gillespie sought to connect Warner to Obama throughout the debate, particularly on the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration's policy on coal.
The Virginia contest has so far failed to draw many headlines, thanks to Warner's sizeable lead in polls. Washington-based groups that have poured money into competitive Senate races around the country have stayed out of Virginia.
Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis was not invited to the debate.