First Va. gubernatorial debate gets sharp and personal between Cuccinelli, McAuliffe

Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates attacked each other’s ethics, experience and intentions Saturday during a first debate that was marked by several sharp — and personal — exchanges.

Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II portrayed Democrat Terry McAuliffe as someone who will say or do anything to get elected and whose term as governor would only benefit his political cronies.

Mr. McAuliffe countered that the attorney general is solely interested in promoting an extreme social agenda that would make the state look inhospitable to employers, driving away businesses and jobs.

The candidates tackled transportation, federal health care reform and immigration and found virtually no common ground during the 90-minute debate, held at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs and sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association.

“I think the tone of the debate was very sharp,” University of Richmond School of Law professor Carl Tobias said. “Each was attacking the other in a personal way. It wasn’t even attacks on their plans or programs or issues.”

And with the eyes of the nation focusing on what has been a tight Virginia contest — the only competitive governor’s race in the country this year — it wasn’t long before each man zeroed in on issues on which the other has been considered vulnerable.

Allowed to ask one question of each other, Mr. Cuccinelli turned to GreenTech Automotive Inc., a company that was supposed to serve as proof of Mr. McAuliffe’s business acumen but which has not lived up to projected production or employment levels.

The Republican asked why Mr. McAuliffe announced in 2009 that he was locating his car company’s plant in Mississippi a day before he was scheduled to tour the Virginia town of Martinsville, which has suffered from chronic unemployment and could have benefited from the economic boost a plant might have provided.

Mr. McAuliffe said he had a responsibility to his company’s shareholders — a theme Mr. Cuccinelli seized on throughout the debate, painting Mr. McAuliffe as a dealmaker pursuing his own self-interest.

“Look, Terry had his choice. He knew how desperate the people of Martinsville were and he picked Terry over the people of Virginia. That’s what happened,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.

“I picked Mississippi, not Terry,” Mr. McAuliffe responded.

“OK, so you picked Mississippi. So run for governor in Mississippi,” Mr. Cuccinelli said to laughter and scattered applause from the audience.

For his part, Mr. McAuliffe linked Mr. Cuccinelli to a growing ethics scandal involving Gov. Bob McDonnell and thousands of dollars in gifts the McDonnell family received from a wealthy Virginia businessman. He pointed out that Jonnie R. Williams, CEO of Star Scientific Inc., also gave the attorney general gifts and trips — some of which he failed to properly disclose.

“The same gentleman that gave the governor all these gifts at the same time was giving the attorney general gifts as well,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

The Democrat accused Mr. Cuccinelli of mishandling a legal dispute involving the nutritional supplement maker, which sought to reverse a $1.7 million tax bill.

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