But when pressed for detail about his own views, McAuliffe often sticks to broad outlines. Four years after his first run for governor, the Democrat has backed away from his opposition to coal-fired power, and he has newly embraced offshore drilling. He has declined to say where he stands on new emissions standards that the EPA is due to release Friday. He speaks broadly of the need for greater investment in green energy while also cautioning that coal jobs must be preserved.
McAuliffe’s tightrope walk results in part from an effort not to alienate the energy sector or the thousands of voters in southwest Virginia who work in the coal industry. At a time when Republicans are blitzing those Virginians with advertisements about the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” McAuliffe appears to be trying to keep his distance.
The Democrat also must navigate the challenging publicity surrounding his stewardship of GreenTech Automotive, an electric-car company under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. McAuliffe has at times avoided promoting his own investment in green energy, presumably because it gives Republicans a chance to remind voters of his involvement with the troubled company.
Mostly, when the topic of the environment arises, McAuliffe talks about Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe and his environmentalist supporters have characterized Cuccinelli as a science denier, as demonstrated by the legal challenge that Cuccinelli mounted soon after becoming attorney general in 2010 to the EPA’s decision to regulate greenhouse gases implicated in global warming.
Cuccinelli is also known for his controversial attempt to investigate a climate researcher at the University of Virginia. McAuliffe has said that Cuccinelli’s investigation of Michael Mann shows why the Republican would be “bad for business.”
At a recent appearance in Charlottesville with Mann, McAuliffe sought to draw a sharp contrast when he said: “That’s not a welcoming message to bring scientists and technologists and professors from all over the globe to come to Virginia when you know you will be harassed by the attorney general of the state. Not a welcoming message. We need to move away from that. ”
These talking points have attracted deep-pocketed support for McAuliffe from environmental activists, notably billionaire Tom Steyer, who is investing heavily in the race as a way to push climate change onto the national political stage.
The attacks also have put Cuccinelli on the defensive. After a recent energy forum, the Republican dodged a question from a reporter about whether he believes humans are responsible for global warming.
“Ken Cuccinelli is one of the most vocal climate-change deniers in the country,” said Jeffrey Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, which has poured $1.6 million into the race. “We can’t trust him to address a problem that he doesn’t even believe exists.”