Wes Moore, Dan Cox spar in Maryland debate

Both Maryland gubernatorial candidates, Wes Moore and Dan Cox, went head-to-head Wednesday afternoon in the only televised debate scheduled for the 2022 midterm election. 

Democratic candidate Moore has refused to accept any other invitations – including one from FOX 5 – to debate his Republican challenger Cox. As a result, the interaction between both at the Maryland Public Television Studios Wednesday is likely to be the only time both candidates share the stage to answer questions. 

Cox said Moore has avoided debating him, because "he’s a phony," criticizing his best-selling book for claiming he lived in Baltimore longer than he did.

Moore, for his part, said he is focusing his campaign on improving education and the economy, "instead of delving into conspiracy theories."

"This is outrageous and ridiculous," Cox said. "We are bigger than middle school name-calling. I am running to restore opportunity. Safety, affordability, freedom and education is my platform."

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Some of the biggest clashes between the candidates came over the issue of abortion. Cox is anti-abortion, Moore, who's pro-choice, at one point said, "abortion is healthcare and I fully trust women to make this decision with their doctors."

"I want Maryland to be a safe haven for abortion rights," Moore said, adding that he supports a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to abortion in Maryland’s Constitution.

Abortion rights already are protected under Maryland law, and the General Assembly approved legislation this year to expand access to abortion.

Cox, who is opposed to abortion, noted the strong protections for abortion rights already in Maryland. He criticized a question from a panelist who asked why he opposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates but supported restricting abortion rights.

"The bills that I have supported have had exceptions. They have always focused on things like making sure women are safe with the distribution of medication, making sure women are safe in their procedures and in their ambulatory clinics, making sure that little children with Down syndrome are not targeted just because of their being disabled," Cox said.

RELATED: Maryland 2022 Primary: Where each gubernatorial candidate stands on abortion

During another exchange over how schools should handle transgender students, Moore said he wants to be an inclusive governor. Cox said he wants books out of classrooms he called "disgusting." 

The first question of the night came from a panelist who asked Cox — who's questioned the 2020 election results before — would he accept the 2022 election results. That dispute continued to boil over even after the hour-long debate broke up. 

"He has not even honored the 2020 election results, so none of us should hold our breath about the 2022 [election]," Moore said. "He is an election denier. He’s someone who does not believe in democracy, he's someone who doesn’t believe all votes should be counted."

"Yes, but I’m not going to say that there aren’t differences. Democrats and Republicans have a statutory right, a constitutional right to do things like recounts," Cox answered. "How could I stand on stage and say that Mr. Moore wouldn’t have the right to a recount? And he just did that!"

There are not 27 days until Election Day. The Maryland Governor's race is widely viewed as lopsided. Cox reported only $130,000 on hand in late August and trailed Moore by a 2 to 1 margin in a recent Washington Post – University of Maryland Poll. 

The debate is scheduled to be broadcast on Maryland Public Television at 7:00 p.m.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.