Five things to watch in the first debate of Va. governor’s race

With less than four months before Virginia picks its next governor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and businessman Terry McAuliffe are squaring off Saturday for the first formal debate of their contest.

Cuccinelli (R) and McAuliffe (D) will take the stage at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs for a debate sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association, the first of at least a handful — the final number is still subject to negotiation — between the two hopefuls. Judy Woodruff, the “PBS NewsHour” co-anchor, will moderate.

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Both candidates have been prepping for the face-off. Chris LaCivita, a Cuccinelli campaign adviser, has played the role of McAuliffe in mock debates, while Paul Reagan, chief of staff to former senator James Webb (D-Va.), has stood in for Cuccinelli for the McAuliffe campaign.

Here are five key dynamics to watch for during the debate:

Experience factor

When it comes to debating, there is a clear experience gap between the two candidates.

Cuccinelli is now in his fifth campaign — he successfully ran three times for the state Senate and once for attorney general — so he is a seasoned debater. He is also an experienced litigator who appears to enjoy verbal sparring and the art of the argument.

McAuliffe, who lost the Democratic nomination for governor in 2009, is a veteran public speaker and has appeared frequently on national TV news. Cameras and crowds are nothing new for McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. But he does not have the raw campaign debate experience Cuccinelli does, which could explain why the Republican suggested they should do 15 debates around the commonwealth — far more than is typical for a statewide race — while McAuliffe said he preferred to do five.

That doesn’t mean Cuccinelli takes every invitation, though: He would not agree to a proposed debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP, arguing that they were left-leaning groups, even though other recent Republican candidates have accepted the invitation.

Direct questions

The VBA debate will include one feature that many debates don’t — the chance for each candidate to ask the other some direct questions.

McAuliffe’s campaign originally objected to that format during negotiations but eventually agreed, meaning each man will get the chance to put his foe on the spot. So what will they ask?

Cuccinelli has sought to hammer the theme that he’s the lone candidate who won’t need “on-the-job training,” so he could use this chance to make McAuliffe’s knowledge of Virginia and its government look thin. That’s what Cuccinelli did in 2009 to Steve Shannon (D), his foe in the attorney general’s race, asking him at a debate to name and describe each of the divisions in the attorney general’s office. When Shannon dodged, Cuccinelli said: “Mr. Moderator, in court I’d object to a witness not answering the question.”

McAuliffe, meanwhile, could ask Cuccinelli to explain his position on any number of issues Democrats think the Republican might prefer to avoid — abortion, gay rights, the Violence Against Women Act and why he accepted gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the chief executive of Star Scientific.

The McDonnell saga

There will be no escaping the fact that Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are running to succeed a governor who is under a cloud of controversy. Will either man mention Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), and in what context?

McAuliffe has conspicuously embraced McDonnell’s best-known policy achievement — an overhaul of how the commonwealth pays for transportation projects — as evidence that he can work with Republicans to cut common-sense deals.

Cuccinelli does not often mention McDonnell on the stump, even though the incumbent had until recently enjoyed strong job approval numbers. The two Republicans have differed on some issues, including the transportation program. But the two men are clearly linked, both because of their shared party affiliation and because Cuccinelli also has taken gifts from Williams. Cuccinelli could well be asked why he accepted those gifts in the first place, or whether he thinks McDonnell should resign.

The female vote

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed a notable gender gap in the contest: McAuliffe narrowly led Cuccinelli among all voters, 43 percent to 39 percent, but enjoyed a 48 to 32 advantage among Virginia women. That split will be on the minds of both candidates.

McAuliffe will probably seek to continue his campaign’s portrayal of Cuccinelli as a conservative extremist on issues such as abortion and contraception. Virginia Democrats also have aired an ad criticizing Cuccinelli for not endorsing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Cuccinelli has tried to soften his image in hopes of attracting female voters, airing one ad featuring testimony from his wife, Teiro, and another with the wife of a slain Fairfax County police officer praising the attorney general. Cuccinelli also has stressed his fight, dating back to college, against sexual assault and his work with the homeless and mentally ill.

Likability

Both men still have work to do to convince a majority of Virginians that they should be governor.

The Quinnipiac poll showed 50 percent of voters don’t know enough about McAuliffe to have an opinion of him, while 36 percent said the same of Cuccinelli.

Saturday’s debate will give the candidates a chance to enter voters’ living rooms and try to appear likable while demonstrating whether they have the requisite thick skins to serve as governor.

 
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