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.
"You had a fiduciary duty there, sir," Mr. McAuliffe said of Mr. Cuccinelli's responsibility to defend the state. "Instead of taking him to court, he was taking you to New York City. … He was buying you $1,500 turkey dinners. That's a lot of turkey."
That line also drew the crowd's laughter.
Asked whether they thought Mr. McDonnell should consider resigning over the scandal, as several Democrats recently have urged him to do, Mr. Cuccinelli pointed out that he initiated a state investigation into the matter.
"I don't think it's appropriate for the sitting attorney general to call for the resignation of the governor," he said, adding that he thought it was appropriate to ask the governor to think about it.
Mr. McAuliffe said everyone should "stand down" and wait for the results of the investigations.
"Only Gov. McDonnell knows the facts. I don't think I should call for his resignation," he said.
On social issues, Mr. Cuccinelli said he would not use the political capital of the governor's office to pursue legislation that defines life as beginning at conception. He also said he stands by comments he made several years ago that same-sex acts are against nature and are harmful to society.
Mr. McAuliffe acknowledged Virginia's constitutional ban on gay marriage but said he supports same-sex unions. And he said there are consequences to what he described as Mr. Cuccinelli's "mean-spirited, hateful comments" on social issues.
"I have to compete as governor against 200 nations around the world and 49 other states. We have to be open and welcoming. The attacks on women, the attacks on gays, the attacks on children who have come here from immigrant parents, no fault of their own, we've got to stop it. We've got to make Virginia open and welcoming."
That drew a swift response from Mr. Cuccinelli, who said that many Virginians hold opinions similar to his own and the notion that conservative views on social issues might chase business from Virginia "would be laughable if it weren't so offensive."
"The only person who has abandoned or driven business out of Virginia is you. It's you, Terry. It certainly isn't me," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "So instead of putting Virginians first, you put Terry first. You put Terry first. A common theme for you."
Mr. McAuliffe, in his opportunity to question Mr. Cuccinelli, accused his opponent of intentionally misleading voters, of saying in past campaigns that he would focus on issues like jobs and transportation while instead pursuing a divisive social agenda.
"Ken, you are the true Trojan Horse of Virginia politics. You come in pretending to be one thing and you really are something else," he said.
Mr. Tobias said a combative campaign could make it difficult for the candidates — neither of whom has shown strong likability ratings in polls — to win over key independent voters. He also pointed out that such a contentious tone is unusual for July, since most races usually heat up heading into the fall.
“This campaign all of a sudden has accelerated ahead of Labor Day,” he said.
With the election set for Nov. 5, the candidates have run nearly even in polls.
Mr. McAuliffe led 41 percent to 37 percent in a poll released last week by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, right on the of margin of error of 4 percentage points. Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis drew 7 percent, and 15 percent of voters were undecided.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.