Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II will get his last shot to go toe-to-toe with Terry McAuliffe on Thursday in the third and final debate of the Virginia governor’s race. But the Democrat, with a modest lead in polling and an outsize advantage in money, will likely be content simply to avoid any cringeworthy gaffes.
During two earlier debates and at forums around the state, the candidates have hewed relatively close to form, with the same feel-good bromides and attacks at one another’s positions and personal character.
Mr. McAuliffe, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, supports growing jobs as well as the state legislature’s recently passed transportation plan. He says officials can’t afford to put up walls around Virginia with the divisive social and ideological agenda that Mr. Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, would bring with him to the Executive Mansion.
Mr. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, describes himself as the only candidate who won’t need on-the-job training, who has an economic plan specific enough to actually be scored by economists and, unlike Mr. McAuliffe, didn’t choose to locate a struggling green car company now under federal investigation in Mississippi.
But with Mr. McAuliffe holding a lead in the high single digits in most polls, Mr. Cuccinelli is going to need to deliver a different message during Thursday’s event at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“He needs to be perfect and he needs cooperation from McAuliffe in the gaffe department,” Mr. Kondik said. “Cuccinelli needs McAuliffe to make some horrible, horrible mistake — and it has to be extra horrible because very few people are watching it live. If you’re winning, you just want to run out the clock.”
The latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows the Democrat at 46.4 percent and Mr. Cuccinelli at 36.8 percent. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who won’t appear at the debate, takes 10 percent.
Support for third-party candidates tends to fade as Election Day approaches in Virginia. The last statewide candidate to crack double digits was independent Marshall Coleman in the U.S. Senate race in 1994, and he had the blessing of longtime GOP Sen. John Warner.
Mr. Coleman, a former state attorney general who won 11 percent of the vote, ended up acting largely as a spoiler in the race between Democrat Charles S. Robb and Republican Oliver North. Mr. Robb defeated Mr. North in the high-octane race, 46 percent to 43 percent.
But if Mr. Sarvis is able to harness voters’ dissatisfaction with the choices being offered by the two major parties, it’s possible that the next Virginia governor will be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.
The Libertarian is at or near double digits in polling, even though 78 percent of voters in a Quinnipiac survey released Wednesday say they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. Some of his support can likely be chalked up to voters’ opinion of the nasty battle overall. Fifty-eight percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of the race, with 34 percent saying their view is “strongly unfavorable.”
Four percent are undecided and 7 percent say there’s a good chance they’ll change their minds by Nov. 5.
“The big question about Sarvis is whether his voters will stick with him to the end,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling institute.
The survey of 1,085 likely voters was taken from Oct. 15-21 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Voters do not register by party in Virginia, but 33 percent self-identified as Democrats, 25 percent said they were Republicans, and 35 percent said they were independents.