The five biggest takeaways from the final Cuccinelli-McAuliffe debate

October 25, 2013
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) attacked one another during their opening remarks in the final debate before Virginians vote. (WDBJ7)

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe debated a third time Thursday night, giving voters one final chance to see the two candidates side by side before heading to the polls in under two weeks.

So what were the most important takeaways from the hour-long showdown hosted by Virginia Tech and and WDBJ? Here are the five biggest things we spotted:

1. Cuccinelli needed a big moment to shift the tide. He didn't get one.  Poll after poll has shown McAuliffe with between a seven and 10-point lead. Democrats have been winning the ad spending battle. And Cuccinelli couldn't win the endorsement of the reliably conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board. In short, just about everything has been trending McAuliffe in recent weeks, meaning Cuccinelli needed to turn the tide in a big way Thursday night. But he didn't do it. Both candidates went on the offensive, with McAuliffe slamming Cuccinelli as out of the mainstream and unwilling to compromise while the Republican parried with charges that McAuliffe has no substantive policy ideas. But none of the attacks derailed either candidate. And neither candidate committed any huge gaffes, either. Cuccinelli is running out of time to make a comeback and Team McAuliffe has to be breathing a sigh of relief after their candidate survived a plum opportunity for Cuccinelli to make a big move.

2. Puppy talk. (And why it matters.) The most memorable line of the debate was Cuccinelli's remark that McAuliffe is "all puppy and and no plan." It was part of the Republican's concerted effort to convince voters McAuliffe lacks well-thought out plans for governing. To Cuccinelli's credit, it's a line that will stick in viewers' minds, which is what he wanted. But the question is whether the will be remembered more for its oddness than an indictment of the Democrat.

3. A microcosm of the campaign. The campaign has been chock full of broadsides from both sides. So was the debate. McAuliffe has been hammering Cuccinelli on social issues for months. He continued that Thursday. Cuccinelli has been going after what in his view is McAuliffe's lack of adequate experience and preparation, and he hammered that theme again and again Thursday. If you haven't been paying close attention to the race and want a sense of the tone, watch a replay of the debate and you'll get a pretty good sense of it.

4. The Robert Sarvis effect. The Libertarian Party candidate didn't poll well enough to qualify for the debate, but he wasn't a forgotten man Thursday. Cuccinelli not-so-subtly reminded viewers that he was endorsed by Ron Paul, a hero of libertarians. McAuliffe exhibited no animosity toward the third-party candidate, saying he would have debated him. Sarvis is a bigger complication for Cuccinelli, even as both candidates are making a play to steal away his supporters. The latest Quinnipiac University poll showed Sarvis carrying 11 percent of Republicans, compared to just two percent of Democrats. If Cuccinelli can't bring more Republican voters home by Nov. 5, it's hard to see him having much of a chance.

5. Washington vs. Washington. The debate reinforced each national party's biggest weakness right now. McAuliffe went after Cuccinelli over his refusal "to say whether he supported reopening government," a reference to the government shutdown showdown in Congress that was a political disaster for Republicans. Cuccinelli tied McAuliffe to Obamacare, the national health-care law that has been plagued by a problematic rollout. The outcome of the race probably isn't going to pivot on national issues, but as both sides continue to try to link the other one to national Republicans and Democrats, they will do so on familiar ground to observers of the national political debate.

Fixbits: 

Contractors in charge of constructing the online health-care marketplace said the Obama administration launched HealthCare.gov even though it had not been sufficiently tested.

Tom Mattzie explained his decision to live-tweet about Michael Hayden.

Democrat Jay Paterno, the son of the Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, is considering challenging Republican Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson.

Louisiana state Rep. Paul Hollis (R) may run for the Senate.

A North Carolina Republican precinct chairman resigned after his comments on "The Daily Show" stoked controversy.

A lobbyist's tweet about the tea party triggered the latest round of GOP infighting.

Must-reads: 

"For presidents, link between the power to fire and their inclination to do so can be tenuous" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Inside the Messy but Moneyed Republican Plan to Neutralize the Tea Party" -- Beth Reinhard, National Journal

"Former NSA chief learns the other side of eavesdropping thanks to a Twitter user" -- Brian Fung, Washington Post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · October 24, 2013