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Terry McAuliffe goes AWOL for Virginia students and media

Campaign ducks simple questions

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It seemed a novel, relatively simple way for Virginia political candidates to engage with high school students across the state — and one that has been done for four years now.

In April, the gubernatorial campaigns of Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II were asked if they would provide videotaped responses to five questions culled from 5,300 queries submitted by high school students across Virginia.

The candidates agreed and confirmed when reminded of the project four weeks ago. But two weeks ago, Mr. McAuliffe abruptly backed out — angering administrators and fitting an emerging pattern of evading what appear to be even the most innocuous questions in the closing days of the campaign.

Some of the reports Mr. McAuliffe has refused to address have been broad in length and scope. A 1,600-word profile in The Washington Post this week of his failed economic development junket to Cuba in 2010 said the Democrat's campaign "declined to make him available for an interview."

Other reports have been more specific. A dispatch on the sportsman's vote featured on the site PotomacLocal.com last week said that "Calls to the McAuliffe campaign about that candidate's history on hunting and his position on sportsmen's issues went unanswered."

To be sure, the campaign has provided a steady stream of statements, position papers and conference calls. But it has all but stopped responding to questions — even about the candidate's daily schedule. Five days before Election Day, the campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the whereabouts of Mr. McAuliffe, and it was unclear whether he had any publicly scheduled events Thursday or Friday.

Some of the blackout could be a result of Mr. McAuliffe's position in the polls. With a lead thought to be 4 to 12 percentage points, depending on which survey is quoted, the Democrat has little reason to volunteer any information that could damage his standing.

"Here you have a guy ahead in the polls in a sort of 'prevent defense,'" said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics, referring to a strategy employed by defenses late in football games when they are ahead.

Mr. Holsworth said he also had seen fewer public events with Mr. Cuccinelli in the past few weeks than he would expect in such a race. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis has been working to drum up attention for his campaign on a shoestring budget.

But for Mr. McAuliffe, his recent appearances have been heavily scripted. He was not made available for reporters' questions during a four-day swing through the state with former President Bill Clinton. In fact, the last time he took questions was in a gaggle with Virginia reporters after his last debate with Mr. Cuccinelli in Blacksburg on Oct. 24.

The Republican hoped to take advantage of Mr. McAuliffe's outsized personality at the start of the campaign, challenging him to 15 debates in the hopes that the loquacious and bombastic former chairman of the Democratic National Committee might trip himself up and commit a fatal gaffe or reveal a critical lack of knowledge of state operations. Despite a few stumbles, Mr. McAuliffe by most accounts handled himself well throughout the course of three debates.

In the past, Mr. McAuliffe has repeatedly encouraged reporters to follow him on his tours throughout Virginia.

"I am focused on running for governor," he told the press corps in August. "That is what I do every day. I encourage you to come with me. We get up early in the morning, we go late at night. We're out seven days a week talking about the issues."

So with regard to the students' questions, the apparent about-face is odd, considering that Mr. McAuliffe has emphasized pre-K and K-12 education as planks in his campaign platform.

The annual "Face the Students" project involved more than 2,600 civics students from 29 schools in 14 Virginia school districts this year. They were asked to submit questions on the issues of the economy, education, family, health care and immigration that were culled in a six-week project to five questions.

Officials said that when Mr. McAuliffe saw the questions, he withdrew from the event. Dave O'Mara, founder of the project, said it's the first time a candidate has reneged so abruptly on an agreement to participate.

Teachers, administrators and students were not pleased and worked to get the Democrat to reverse his position.

"We were disappointed to learn that Mr. McAuliffe would not be participating after all and we hope that he will reconsider," Michael Palermo, a social studies teacher at Yorktown High School, wrote Oct. 24 in an email to the campaign. "My students were thrilled last year when our two Senate candidates joined the debate and we hope that this tradition of participatory democracy will continue."

A similar plea came from M. Keenan Entsminger, chairman of the Social Studies Department at L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County.

"This was a commitment that your camp made six months ago and more importantly, it's the right thing to do," Mr. Entsminger wrote Oct. 24 to Robby Mook, Mr. McAuliffe's campaign manager. "I understand that the campaign is picking up speed but the majority of the students that he will be addressing are seniors that will be eligible to vote in November. We are striving to make our students better citizens and more informed voters here in Chesterfield County. Please help us in that endeavor."

Myra Frazier, social studies curriculum supervisor for Carroll County Schools, made a last-ditch appeal to Mr. Mook on Monday.

"Extremely disappointed that a candidate running for governor could not take the time to answer questions from students in the Commonwealth," she wrote. "I'm not sure why at the last minute Mr. McAuliffe had no time to tape responses to the students questions but it is clear through actions how much education in the state is valued."

Previous candidates who have participated in the project include Republican Rep. Rob Wittman and his Democratic opponent Krystal Ball in 2010. Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, a Republican, and his opponents, Democrat Babur Lateef and independent John Gray, took part in 2011. As Mr. Palermo alluded to in his email, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and his opponent last year, Republican George Allen, also participated.

Mr. Cuccinelli's campaign had been cooperating and was planning to respond by Oct. 17, but decided not to participate after being informed of the McAuliffe campaign's decision, Mr. O'Mara said.

Mr. McAuliffe's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the Face the Students project, but he tweeted a link Thursday of two supporters who "are volunteering on #TeamTerry to ensure all Virginians have access to quality education."

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