The five biggest takeaways from the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe debate

September 26, 2013

The second Virginia gubernatorial debate between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II is in the books.

What did we take away from the hour-long set-to hosted by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday night? Here are the five biggest things that stood out:

1. No knockout blow. That's good for McAuliffe. Both candidates leaned heavily on arguments and criticisms they've made before, and neither landed any big-time hits. McAuliffe sought to cast Cuccinelli as a social conservative ideologue who is the wrong choice for women. His repeated use of the word "mainstream" to define himself was a clear play to paint Cuccinelli as the opposite. Cuccinelli argued that McAuliffe was a creature of politics about whom voters can never be sure. "If Terry’s elected governor, we’re gonna have to change the state motto from 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' to 'Quid Pro Quo,'" he said in one of the most memorable lines of the night. But quotables aside, there were no moments that threatened to upend the race. Count it as a slight victory for McAuliffe, who is leading in polls.

2. A stark contrast on guns. McAuliffe underscored his support for universal background checks. Cuccinelli talked about the importance of resolving mental health-care issues. It was a clear instance of a sharp policy distinction in a debate dominated by broader political/personal bickering and lacking in specifics. (Another clear policy disagreement: The question of whether schools should be allowed to start before Labor Day. McAuliffe said no, citing tourism. Cuccinelli argued yes.)

3. An ending that said it all. McAuliffe's closing statement amounted to saying Cuccinelli was a bad choice for women. The Democrat owes his lead in the polls to a big spike in support from female voters in recent months, so it was no surprise he closed on the note he did. Cuccinelli's closing argument was that McAuliffe is bad for business and jobs. The Democrat has received attention for a botched endorsement interview with a business group, so it was a natural end note for Cuccinelli. This race has been very negative. The candidate better able to bring down the other guy between now and Nov. 5 will likely be the winner.

4. A shortage of specifics, a surplus of ducking issues. "Questions about gay marriage, tax returns, paying for education plans and closing loopholes were met by both candidates with pivots and quick attacks on the other guy," wrote The Washington Post's Mark Berman. Added The Post's Laura Vozzella and Fredrick Kunkle, "Both men ducked questions: McAuliffe on the cost of raising teacher’s salaries, funding pre-K programs and other priorities on his agenda; Cuccinelli on what tax loopholes he would close to pay for his promised $1.4 billion tax cut." This was the first televised debate of the campaign, the first chance for voters to see the two candidates side-by-side, not through the lens of the negative ads that have been blanketing the airwaves. But viewers looking for more clarity on big issues walked away disappointed.

5. A Redskins name change? No comment. Both candidates refused to say whether or not the Washington Redskins should change their name over complaints it is offensive to Native Americans. For context, a recent Washington Post poll showed a large majority of D.C.-area residents don't support a name change.

Fixbits:

House Republicans are exploring a strategy that could avert a government shutdown by focusing their fight over Obamacare on the debt ceiling showdown.

Bill Clinton pitched Chelsea Clinton for president. "She knows more than we do about everything," he said.

President Obama didn't tune in for Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz's marathon floor speech.

George H.W. Bush was a witness at a same-sex marriage ceremony in Maine.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he is "torn" over the prospect of a government shutdown.

A 26-year-old Oregon stripper revealed online correspondence she had with Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D).

Emily's List endorsed West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) for the U.S. Senate.

Must-reads:

"Ted Cruz speech reignites John McCain feud" -- David Rogers, Politico

"Clinton calls for a review on women’s equality" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · September 25, 2013