GLASSBORO, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- There's just three weeks to go before New Jersey voters pick a governor, and the two candidates faced off in the second and final debate Tuesday night.
Gov. Phil Murphy's lead in the polls has narrowed in recent weeks, so with time running out before Election Day, this debate was a crucial conversation voters to hear.
The Democratic governor faced off with his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, for the second time at Rowan University in Glassboro in South Jersey.
In debate number two, the pandemic remained issue number one.
"We know vaccines work. We know masking works," Murphy said.
"[Murphy] participated in a very large indoor conference I think over the last three to four days in which nobody was wearing masks," Ciattarelli said.
"I have to answer the thing about masking. Are you wearing a mask right now? Are you wearing a mask?" Murphy responded.
Coming off one of the darkest times for the state, Murphy called it "sunrise in New Jersey," but with unemployment hovering around 7%, why can't businesses get people to go back to work?
"We are our lowest unemployment rate in our state's history before this pandemic hit," Murphy said. "Our unemployment rate has come down. It will continue to come down."
"I do believe the unemployment benefits were too generous for too long," Ciattarelli said. "One of highest unemployment rates in the nation and yet everywhere you went, there was a help wanted sign."
As CBS2's Jessica Layton reports, the tone was similar to that of the first debate in Newark -- tense, especially when it came to race and education.
"If you're in a Black or brown community or you're a Black or brown kid out there, you're gonna get the rug pulled out from under you," Murphy said.
"It's interesting when he talks about the Black and brown community. In his four years in office, he has not approved a single charter school for the city of Newark," Ciattarelli said.
Ciattarelli, a former Assemblyman whose campaign slogan is "Let's fix New Jersey," attacked the incumbent on taxes and the state budget.
"The governor's budget is up $11 billion," he said. "I will tell you that I believe state government is bloated."
"Hate to let the pesky facts get in the way ... We inherited a complete, utter mess, and you were there for six years before I was, so we made a $6.905 billion pension payment, the first one in 25 years. We funded public education after you all had underfunded it by $9.2 billion. We're paying our bills," Murphy said.
"People don't want a handout, they want a hand up, and they want lower property taxes in the state," Ciattarelli said.
"That's offensive. That's offensive," Murphy said. "That's another example of forward backward, if you're out there. A hand-out? I mean, come on, man."
"With regard to our state of affairs, I firmly believe that we can do better, and when I'm governor, we will," Ciattarelli said.
"Serving as your governor is the honor of my lifetime. I'm asking for four more years," Murphy said.
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Republican state senator Holly Schepisi said Democratic voters have been calling her office, saying they plan to vote Republican.
"The random mask mandate that came out that 2 year olds now had to wear a mask pushed even those who are very pro-vaccination, whose older children are wearing masks, over the edge," she told CBS2's Nick Caloway.
Murphy and other Democrats have tried to tie Ciatarelli to former president Donald Trump, who lost twice in New Jersey.
Saily Avelenda is executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
"You have science tells you what is going to help us get through this pandemic. We have vaccines, and we have masks. Science and data tell us this. The fact that the Republican party has politicized it into something that is not based on science, that is on them," she said.
Ciatarelli has attacked Murphy on a range of issues, including the state's high taxes, but for most voters, issue number one is the pandemic.
Ashley Koning is assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
"Murphy's ratings have soared throughout the entire pandemic and are still very solid with voters on that, and that's something that's at the forefront of New Jersey voters' minds," she said.
In another key debate Tuesday, incumbent Bergen County Clerk John Hogan faced off against challenger Bridget Anne Kelly.
Kelly was an aide to former governor Chris Christie, who became entangled in the Bridgegate scandal. The issue came up during the debate.
"I can assure you, I had no role in closing or realigning lanes of the bridge," Kelly said. "I was convicted, yes, on nine federal charges, and then guess what? My conviction was overturned."
"I never closed a bridge. I never participated in closing a bridge," Hogan said. "A lot of people suffered from that bridge closing."
"I didn't close the bridge, Mr. Hogan. I did not close the bridge," Kelly said.
The debate was sponsored by the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP.
Early in-person voting starts Oct. 23 and runs through Halloween.
CBS2's Nick Caloway and Jessica Layton contributed to this report.
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