PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Dan McKee and his Republican challenger Ashley Kalus brawled one last time in their final debate Thursday, accusing each other of being unfit for office and refusing to back off their mutual attacks.

The contest between McKee, who ascended to the job last year when Gina Raimondo resigned, and Kalus, a newcomer to Rhode Island, has turned increasingly bitter as the two assail each other daily in TV ads, news releases and public appearances.

McKee used the debate to cast Kalus as an erratic out-of-towner who doesn’t understand state government, citing legal disputes and vulgar text messages that have come to light since she became a candidate. He also condemned her attacks on him as “dishonest” and “shameless.”

“She’s wrong for Rhode Island and I think her behavior is despicable,” McKee said.

Kalus argued McKee is incompetent and untrustworthy, repeatedly bringing up the FBI investigation into the education contract that his office gave to the ILO Group, a company with political connections. She said Rhode Island needs new leadership.

“We have momentum — like the Titanic,” Kalus said. “And families are suffering.”

The one-hour broadcast, hosted at Rhode Island College by WJAR-TV, was one of only two TV debates in the gubernatorial race. McKee and Kalus previously faced off Oct. 11 in a prime-time debate hosted by WPRI 12. They also debated twice on the radio.

No polls have been released in the contest since early October, when two surveys showed McKee leading Kalus by double-digits. But Kalus has continued to pour millions of dollars of her own money into her campaign in a bid to close the gap.

Most of the debate covered issues where the pair have tangled before. McKee bristled at being questioned about the FBI investigation into ILO, saying “all the taxpayers need to know” is that he himself has not been contacted by law enforcement. He again declined to say if his administration has been subpoenaed.

“Go to the people doing the review,” McKee said.

McKee noted that Attorney General Peter Neronha — who opened the investigation last year before federal prosecutors joined it — has endorsed him for re-election and urged voters not to prejudge the probe’s outcome. Kalus countered that Neronha confirmed Thursday the issue is still being reviewed.

“The target of an investigation is often the last to know,” Kalus said.

Kalus in turn found herself on the defensive over a series of damaging news stories regarding her past, including texts she sent to a business associate in which she called him “a bottom,” “Mr. Mom” and various profanities. McKee linked the texts to police reports and lawsuits that have also put Kalus in a negative light.

“There’s a pattern here,” McKee said, adding that it is “really important” for leaders to “conduct yourself in a respectful way.”

Kalus made no apologies for the texts. “I will not be taken advantage of, and in business sometimes you need to fight,” she said, calling the recipient a “seedy Chicago contractor.”

McKee returned repeatedly to his record as governor, pointing to the state’s record-low unemployment rate, high vaccination level and recovery from the pandemic as evidence his administration has been a success. He also touted over $1 billion in federal money the state is spending on housing, schools and health care.

The governor dismissed as “half-baked” Kalus’s suggestion that he can use a 1980 statute to reverse the recent hike in electricity rates, saying it would open up the state to expensive litigation. But Kalus countered that McKee has taken the opposite approach with truck tolls, where he is appealing a federal ruling that found the program unconstitutional. (He demurred when asked to spell out the basis for that appeal.)

Kalus repeatedly suggested McKee would eventually extend tolls to passenger cars, something he ruled out once again Thursday. She argued that leaving the toll gantries up as an appeal moves through the courts will make voters distrust that promise, and said she would take them down if elected.

McKee made news when he indicated the R.I. Department of Education now expects to release the scores for last spring’s RICAS standardized test prior to the election, after weeks of criticism from Kalus when officials initially said they would not be disclosed until after Nov. 8.

McKee said he was briefed on the scores Wednesday and was told that they went down “a couple points” on reading but up “several points” on math. Kalus said he was only sharing the information under pressure.

On taxes, McKee said his stewardship of the state budget has led to enormous surpluses that allowed the state to eliminate the car tax a year ahead of schedule and also provide tax rebates to many parents. Kalus said the state needs to do more, saying she would get rid of taxes for people earning up to $50,000.

Other topics covered by the candidates included the cost of college, housing construction, homelessness, state-run drug injection sites, and municipal regionalization. Three other candidates on the ballot for governor were not included in the debate.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook