It was telling that after the Virginia gubernatorial debate Ken Cuccinelli II supporters sent out clips of opponent Terry McAuliffe’s less than stellar moments, including his refusal to put a price tag on his spending plans and his enthusiastic embrace of mixing business and politics. That singular focus on McAuliffe, according to polls, hasn’t worked.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post) Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

It’s a shame the Cuccinelli people are convinced that they can “Romney-ize” McAuliffe. Cuccinelli actually had some pretty good moments in the debate, which if they had begun to hammer McAuliffe earlier, Cuccinelli may have prevented his unfavorable numbers from soaring.

First, Cuccinelli explicitly rejected the shutdown-to-get-rid-of-Obamacare strategy, making clear that he’s not going to run Virginia the way Washington runs the country. He told the audience:

I’m a Northern Virginian. I’ve lived up here my whole life. None of us want to see a government shutdown. We don’t want to see that across the river. It wouldn’t be good for America. We’re already seeing in the Virginia economy the problems associated with the uncertainty of federal budgeting as it is. Both in Northern Virginia and in Southeastern Virginia in the Hampton Roads area.

Pressed further, he said, ” I’d like to see Obamacare pulled out of — federal law, but, you know, we’ve gotta keep moving forward and make compromises to get the budget going.”

Why didn’t he start talking this way earlier in the campaign, explicitly running against dysfunctional Washington and pledging to keep the partisanship to a minimum in Richmond? This, I think, is where his national aspirations got in the way of an effective gubernatorial campaign. Only when his back was to the wall would he cast aspersions on the slash-and-burn politics of his conservative political soul mates outside Virginia.

Second, Cuccinelli began to assure voters for the first time that he wasn’t going to govern on social issues. He said, ” Look, I believe– I have some basic beliefs that are fundamental to me. But [the] overwhelming proportion of my time as attorney general has been spent moving Virginia forward economically and protecting liberty and our constitution. . .That’s something you can continue to expect from me as your next governor.” He later added: “I’m one of those who do believe that the institution of marriage should remain between one man and one woman. I would note that my opponent appears poised, based on some of his comments — during the campaign, to not defend our state constitution. Now look, as attorney general, I’ve defended laws whether I like them or not.” That might have peeved national right-wingers, but it could well have calmed the nerves of Virginia voters.

Knowing that social extremism was going to be a principle line of attack from McAuliffe, Cuccinelli should have been crystal clear from the get-go: Virginia doesn’t need new or different laws on these issues of conscience. He will focus on jobs and budget issues. Had he been saying that for months he could have at this point in the race honestly said that McAuliffe is the only one talking about divisive social issues. Cuccinelli committed the cardinal error of politics: He let his opponent define him before he defined himself.

One debate performance when most voters are turned off and already annoyed with both candidates is unlikely to change the trajectory of the race. However, there is over a month left. If Cuccinelli spends the final weeks of the campaign stressing a no-nonsense, bread and butter agenda and an aversion to Washington-style histrionics, some of those centrist voters might come back to him. It might not work. Nevertheless, if he doesn’t do something different he’ll surely lose the race.