- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II could be getting their last, best chance to sway undecided Virginia voters Wednesday when they take the stage in a prime-time, televised debate hosted by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. McAuliffe has emerged with a slight edge in recent polling from a summer mostly notable for a fusillade of attack ads and the message from both camps that not only is their guy better, but the other candidate is simply not fit to be Virginia’s 72nd governor.

The latest RealClearPolitics polling average gives Mr. McAuliffe, formerly the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a 4-point lead over Mr. Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, at 43 percent to 39 percent. Many voters say they’re undecided and some have indicated they’ll instead opt for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who will not be on the stage Wednesday.

Mr. Cuccinelli has recently adopted a general theme that even if voters don’t agree with him on every issue, they’ll always know where he stands as the GOP has tried to seize on Mr. McAuliffe’s shifting positions on issues like energy, immigration and health care.

The Republican will need to do more of that Wednesday to combat the McAuliffe campaign’s attempt to highlight his positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights, said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics.

“[Wednesday] night, Ken Cuccinelli has to be seen as a credible candidate, not a caricature,” Mr. Holsworth said Tuesday in an online conference call hosted by the nonpartisan Virginia Prosperity Project. “And that’s probably a bar that he should be able to achieve. But whether or not that’ll get enough play and whether a statewide debate for governor has the kind of impact that a presidential debate can have is another question altogether.”

The McAuliffe campaign, as it did before the first debate in July, played up Mr. Cuccinelli’s skills as a debater Tuesday.

Cuccinelli’s campaign has repeatedly elevated debates as the one place where they believe they have a decisive advantage. And Cuccinelli’s past opponents have always underestimated him in debates,” McAuliffe spokesman Brennan Bilberry wrote in a memo. “Even though Wednesday will certainly feature another of Cuccinelli’s characteristic debate performances, this time voters already know the truth about Cuccinelli’s extreme agenda.”

Mr. Holsworth called the stakes “very, very high” for Mr. Cuccinelli, who has to find a way to reverse a yawning gender gap that shows women supporting Mr. McAuliffe by 24-point and 18-point margins in two polls released Monday.

The Cuccinelli campaign, meanwhile, said the fact that the Republican is still within striking distance despite being outspent over the summer “speaks to the weakness of Terry McAuliffe as a serious and capable candidate.”

“[T]he more people hear Ken’s message and plan to create 58,000 more jobs, the more receptive and inclined they are in voting for him,” strategist Chris LaCivita wrote in his own advance memo Tuesday. “Tomorrow night, when voters see both men on the stage without their handlers, they are going to see that there’s only one candidate who is prepared and ready to lead them for the next four years: Ken Cuccinelli.”

Mr. Holsworth said the McAuliffe campaign is unlikely to make any drastic changes to the course they’ve charted but that the Democrat needs to be careful about coming off as flippant, pointing to his recent interview with a Northern Virginia technology group in which he reportedly said he’d accomplish his goals as governor by taking people out for drinks.

“I think that was a little too cute, and at the same time reinforced the Cuccinelli narrative that McAuliffe is not a serious candidate for Virginia governor,” he said. “So I think McAuliffe is going to have to show a little gravitas, going to show that he’s gubernatorial and that’ll be important for him.”

A third and final debate is scheduled to take place Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg — about a week and a half before the election.

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