Last week, it came to light that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic Party chief and Clinton pal, had resigned quietly in December as chairman of GreenTech, although in January he was still bragging about being in the electric-car business. Unsurprisingly, both the Republican Governors Association and Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican who will run against McAuliffe in November, did their best to make hay of it. In fact, for days now a steady stream of e-mails hyping the story has hit my in-box. How big a deal is this really?

Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe Terry McAuliffe, right, with Bill Clinton in 2009 (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Democrats should worry that this sort of unforced error and arrogance by McAuliffe is going to make the campaign a nightmare. Every incident that cements his image as a slippery mogul — a practiced pol who will say anything to get elected — is bad news. Should the Dems have gone instead on bended knee to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), beseeching him to run for governor again? They might feel that way in the weeks and months ahead. McAuliffe may be one of the few Democrats Cuccinelli can beat because his campaign makes the election about McAuliffe’s shenanigans and not Cuccinelli’s ideology.

But Cuccinelli’s breathless hyping of the story is telling. Does he really expect this blip in April to do lasting damage to McAuliffe? He has no ads on the air, and it is doubtful that most voters have even heard of the incident. More troubling is the further delay in Cuccinelli rolling out a positive, substantive agenda. He has been playing a dangerous game for months — defining neither himself nor his goals as governor.

Cuccinelli would do well not to invest too much faith in his ability to knock out McAuliffe based on slips, flubs and even minor lies. The media won’t attack him intensely, and, anyway, voters assume that all pols lie. Cuccinelli would do better to get his own race squared away. (He recently found himself on defense trying to defend his appeal of a court decision striking down a sodomy law, arguing this was a legitimate basis for pursuing accused statutory rapists.)

As we have argued before, he would do well to construct a positive, meaty agenda, centered around quality of life in the state, that will appeal to his base and Northern Virginian moderates. Energy development, executing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education and transportation plan, expanding the state university system and health-care reform are all good topics for him. But unless he fills in the blanks, McAuliffe will do it for him, in ways that will damage Cuccinelli and paint him an intolerant extremist.