The campaign's fourth debate also revealed the increasing intensity of the contest as the candidates veered off course at times to jab their opponent's ideas and character.
"This is a choice, fundamentally, whether we continue our progress and move forward with what we do so well which is to lead the world," said Inslee, a former congressman.
McKenna, who is trying to become the first Republican governor since the 1980s, touted support he's garnered from unions, conservative Democrats and newspapers who backed Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2008.
"They see that we cannot continue down the same path that we've been on, that we need a new direction," he said.
Thursday night's debate potentially drew the largest television audience of the campaign. It was held in the studios of KOMO 4 television in Seattle and televised live on all four network television stations in the Puget Sound as well as stations in Central and Eastern Washington.
The two candidates will meet for their fifth and final debate next Tuesday.
Inslee and McKenna both pledged to find billions of additional dollars for public schools and colleges without resorting to hiking taxes.
McKenna contends he can come up with $1.7 billion for public schools and colleges in his first budget primarily by redirecting money from non-education programs into classrooms. He also would limit pay less of the health care tab of state workers and not fill every vacant government job and put the savings into schools.
But Inslee challenged McKenna for embracing a controversial scheme to give local school districts a greater share of the state's property tax levy. It involves a swap of revenues raised from local levies with dollars from statewide property tax collections.
Inslee has been calling it a gimmick and said Thursday it would cause property taxes to rise in 47 percent of the state's school districts without generating any additional dollars for schools
"You might call that a gimmick. You might call that a shell game," he said. "But whatever it is, it is not a solution to our problem. It may help Olympia politicians on paper but it does not help students in the classroom."
McKenna countered that the proposal is a means for complying with a Supreme Court order for increasing state funding for public schools.
"Congressman Inslee has apparently convinced himself it is a gimmick," McKenna said. "Far from being a gimmick every commentator that's looked at Inslee's claims has said he's wrong."
For his part, Inslee has said he will find more money for education by trimming wasteful spending, lowering health care costs and generating revenue from a revived economy.
He vowed to install a management approach called LEAN in every agency to squeeze out savings.
McKenna criticized Inslee for never having practiced the methods of LEAN management he constantly embraces.
This year's governor's race is one of the nation's most competitive gubernatorial contests.
McKenna, 50, of Bellevue, is in his second term as attorney general and trying to become the state's first Republican governor since John Spellman in the early '80s.
Inslee, 61, of Bainbridge Island, served 15 years in Congress before resigning in March to focus on this race.
Thursday night's debate featured a dozen questions covering education, early learning, gun control, gay marriage and their blueprint for creating jobs.
McKenna said his jobs plan centers on lowering costs of unemployment insurance and workers compensation, reducing regulations and revamping the business and occupation tax.
Inslee said he'll push 75 separate proposals to incite job creation and work to make Washington a leader in clean energy and other new technologies.
"We invent, we create and we build in the state of Washington," Inslee said.
McKenna criticizes Inslee's plan because it will "pick winners and losers" by favoring some industries over others.
He made note of an Associated Press story this week that found Inslee had purchased stock in a solar company before aiding the industry in both a book and congressional action.
Inslee had said that he didn't see a conflict of interest, but McKenna hammered him on that point, saying it was a conflict of interest and that Inslee's new jobs plans would set the stage for more.
"All you have to do is be ethical to avoid conflicts of interest," McKenna said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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