NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli faced off for the first time on the debate stage Tuesday.

Murphy is trying to become the first Democrat to win a second term in the state in more than four decades.

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As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reports, these past four years, New Jersey has faced an unprecedented number of issues, and Tuesday’s debate had a little bit of everything — lively discussion on those topics and a lot of drama between the candidates.

Murphy is being challenged by Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman. Both men were businessmen before getting into politics.

Early on, the governor said one of the biggest contrasts between him and his opponent is how they’d handle policy around COVID, taking Ciatarelli to task for being too lax on vaccines and downplaying the seriousness of COVID in children.

“Children in general are not as susceptible to serious illness and death as adults are,” Ciattarelli said.

“We have 21 precious kids in pediatric care. Five of them are in intensive care unit with COVID,” Murphy said. “You can’t look for wiggle room on vaccines and ‘your body, your choice.’ You can’t ignore the science as it relates to masking.”

“I’m vaccinated,” Ciattarelli said. “I promoted my vaccination. I encourage people to get vaccinated. Do I believe that government has a right to tell people they have to take a medicine? No, I don’t.”

There were plenty of moments when the tone wasn’t productive on either side.

“We’re still digging out of the damage that Trump did in terms of masking and making it political,” Murphy said.

“If those watching at home are playing that drinking game where you got to take a shot every time you hear Trump, I suggest they stop real soon because they’re gonna be bombed real soon,” Ciattarelli said.

The audience at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center also witnessed a stark disagreement over when sex education and LGBTQ+ education should begin.

“I believe there are certain subject matter for our younger students, K-8, that are best left at a kitchen table,” Ciattarelli said.

“Lot going on at your kitchen table,” Murphy said.

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Ciattarelli went after Murphy on New Jersey residents spending some of the highest in the nation on property taxes, slammed the governor’s response to Ida a few weeks ago and the number of deaths in nursing homes during the pandemic.

There was also serious discussion on systemic racism. The media tried to clarify Ciattarelli’s controversial stance in the spin room after the debate.

“I don’t believe we should be teaching students that white people perpetuate systemic racism or that the white student is the oppressor or Black and Brown student is the oppressed,” he said.

Both candidates were asked to say something nice about their opponent.

The governor said Ciatarelli is by all accounts a wonderful husband and father.

Ciatarelli thanked Murphy for his public service and commended him for not making vaccinations mandatory for teachers. He said it’s important teachers have the choice to get tested instead of vaccinated.

Layton asked the governor about that position.

“Why still give teachers the option to do the testing instead of mandatory vaccination?” she asked.

“They start at a very high rate … We want them to get vaccinated but the testing additional wrinkle, as we think along with masks is a package that makes our schools safe,” Murphy said.

The governor cut Layton off as she was trying to ask an important follow-up to a question that is sure to be on the minds of many parents as they head to the polls this November. His office apologized and assured her they would get CBS2 a more substantial answer Wednesday morning.

In the meantime, Layton asked both candidates who won the debate Tuesday night.

Ciattarelli said that’s up to the people of New Jersey.

Murphy said, “There’s no question who won tonight. It was yours truly.”

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CBS2’s Jessica Layton contributed to this report.

CBSNewYork Team