MCLEAN, Va. — Virginia's gubernatorial candidates had their first debate in front of a statewide audience Wednesday night and spent most of it rehashing the familiar attacks they've spent millions of dollars broadcasting all summer long.
The stakes were especially high for Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who entered the televised debate trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe. He sought during the hour-long appearance to portray McAuliffe as a Democratic Party insider with no elective experience who throws around buzz words like "jobs" and "bipartisanship" without the knowledge of state government to back it up.
"I'm the only candidate with a plan to create jobs other than to say the word 'jobs' repeatedly," Cuccinelli said.
McAuliffe — who leads among women voters by as much as 24 percentage points — continued to pressure Cuccinelli on social issues while promising to be a uniter in office.
He also sought to distance himself from the Washington political scene where he made a living as a Democratic Party chairman and top fundraiser for former President Bill Clinton.
"I think it's a disgrace what's going on in Washington," McAuliffe said. "I place a pox on everyone's house."
The debate was just the second — and next to last — in a long and heated campaign in which polls show that months of attack ads have actually reduced both candidates' likability among voters.
Debate moderator Chuck Todd, of MSNBC, launched the debate by asking both candidates to respond to the way their opponent has portrayed them in those ad barrages. McAuliffe, portrayed as a well-connected political opportunist, pointed to a long career in the private sector. Cuccinelli, portrayed by McAuliffe as a conservative extremist, said he has proven himself in office to be someone who fight for all Virginians.
The two candidates sparred over everything from whether to expand Medicaid in Virginia in accordance with President Obama's health care reforms to whether the Washington Redskins should change their name.
On Medicaid, McAuliffe has lobbied hard for the expansion, billing it as a revenue generator for the state that can fund programs like pre-K education. Cuccinelli ridiculed the notion that Medicaid expansion could be a "funding mechanism for everything [McAuliffe] wants."
Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe would push the Redskins to change their name.
When asked if Virginia schools should be allowed to open before Labor Day, a perennial issue for state politicians, McAuliffe said he would not grant schools exemptions, indicating it would hurt a tourism industry that relies on late-summer family vacations and young student employees.
"The tourism business is too important," McAuliffe said.
Cuccinelli quickly took the opposite position. "Children outrank tourism," he said.
Neither candidate veered far from their planned talking points.
McAuliffe often alluded to his Republican backers and name-dropped popular Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, while Cuccinelli frequently touted his endorsement from an influential Northern Virginia business group. Both sides are closely monitoring how event sponsor Fairfax Chamber of Commerce will weigh in on the race later this week.
With just over a month to go, Cuccinelli faced the daunting task of shifting the dynamics of the race with his performance in the debate, a task he later admitted was difficult in a short debate where candidates had little time to talk on each issue.
His strongest moment came late in the debate when the candidates were asked if they would use the office to advocate for gay marriage. McAuliffe said he was ready to sign legislation that would give same-sex couples those rights. Cuccinelli, while defending his opposition of gay marriage, quickly noted that it would take a constitutional amendment to change Virginia law, which the governor does not sign.
That played into a narrative Cuccinelli continues to emphasize, one that insists McAuliffe doesn't have a grasp of state government.
"He seems to think he gets to decide which laws and which parts of the Virginia Constitution you have to defend," Cuccinelli said.
McAuliffe managed to avoid a major blunder and continued his appeals to female voters skeptical of Cuccinelli.
"There are consequences to this mean-spirited attack on women's health, on gay Virginians," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe and Cuccinelli will debate for a third and final time Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who attended the debate but wasn't allowed to participate. Sarvis aired a commercial during an intermission chastising both candidates as undesirable and may get to participate in the next debate if he retains his 10 percent share of the vote. That could shake up this hard-fought race late in the game.