TOLEDO — The Democratic race for the Ohio governor’s nomination is getting interesting. In an encounter Wednesday, one candidate refused to say Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy. Another refused to repudiate the National Rifle Association. A third referred to an opponent as "Prince Richard." And the fourth insisted he could overcome his relative obscurity and become governor.

Democrats have been meeting in several forums across the state, but the first official Democratic debate of 2018 was held Wednesday at Toledo’s Bowsher High School. And the gloves came off for it.

During the debate, candidate Richard Cordray noted that the Republican candidates, Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, haven’t debated and have no plans to. He called them out for failing to take to the debate stage to hash out issues that might be uncomfortable for them, such as term-limited Republican Gov. John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid.

The Democratic candidates set out their positions on issues such as charter schools, fracking, gun control, opioids and Republican rule. But the format of the debate, sponsored by WTOL-TV in Toledo, was intended for the candidates to draw contrasts among each other.

Former U.S. Rep. and Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich was asked about his history of meeting with Assad, including conducting a Fox News interview with the dictator, whom the United Nations has accused of using nerve gas on his own citizens as part of Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Kucinich responded by saying he’s traveled the world trying to prevent wars, but he didn’t address meeting Assad. And with reporters after the debate, he refused to condemn the Syrian strongman, saying it’s up to Syrians to pick their leaders.

Pressed, he said, "What’s your interest here? I mean, we’re talking about an election in Ohio."

Another candidate, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill, has been trying to raise his profile by highlighting his support for legalizing recreational marijuana. On Tuesday, he announced that he was against abortion. Then, on the debate stage Wednesday, he went after former Ohio Attorney General Cordray, who late last year stepped down as director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, jumped into the governor’s race and raised $2 million within a few months.

"You are Prince Richard of the Ohio Democratic Party," O’Neill said, later adding that the process has been rigged in Cordray’s favor. The Republican Governors Association, which has been attacking Cordray since before he entered the race, immediately seized on that, sending out the video clip and crowing that "Ohio Democrats grew even more divided at tonight’s heated gubernatorial debate."

But O’Neill might have landed a bigger punch when he told Cordray, "You’ve got an ‘A’ rating from the NRA."

Opponents have been circulating a video of a 2010 speech that Cordray gave to a pro-gun rally at the Statehouse. And on the debate stage Wednesday, he didn’t repudiate the group.

"Rich has never been funded by the NRA," his spokesman, Mike Gwin, said after the debate. "He’s always made his decisions, not based on one interest group or another, but based on what he thinks is in the best interest of his constituents, the state and the country."

Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, is likely the least-known of the candidates, being the youngest and the newest on the political scene. Asked whether he could raise his profile enough to win a statewide primary, he said he wasn’t interested in such things.

"Name recognition on a poll means nothing to me," he said. "Going to places and talking to people about what matters to them means everything to me."

After the debate, he said he represents a "new generation" of leader while his opponents will have to carry the baggage of their past.

"Kucinich should watch the videos of people dying when Assad gassed them and then figure out if he’s a bad person or not. I would never meet with a person like that," Schiavoni said. "When it comes to the NRA, Rich is going to have to own this. ... People make decisions in campaigns, and in that campaign he made a decision to appeal to the right and now he’s stuck there."