Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R) sparred over fundraising tactics. McAuliffe also attacked Cuccinelli's past remarks on gays that he says almost cost Virginia jobs. (Courtesy NBC4/WRC-TV)

The big question going into Wednesday evening’s critical Virginia gubernatorial debate was whether Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli could find a way to shake up a contest in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe has claimed a modest but meaningful lead.

Cuccinelli failed to do so, and the back-and-forth in a Tysons Corner auditorium illustrated two main reasons.

First, the Republican’s long, well-documented record as a prominent crusader for religious right and tea party causes has made it difficult for him to make a credible appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

As a result, McAuliffe was able to keep Cuccinelli on the defensive by citing his past, controversial positions that the Republican would prefer to avoid discussing.

The most prominent one on Wednesday was Cuccinelli’s previous backing of a so-called personhood bill. The measure was designed, in part, to stop abortion, but many doctors think it would also prohibit some common forms of birth control.

Astonishingly, Cuccinelli, whose lack of support among women is killing his standing in the polls, did not challenge McAuliffe’s repeated contentions that he wanted to outlaw contraception.

Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, has said previously that he had no intention of trying to interfere with contraception — but he didn’t repeat that in the debate. I don’t think it helped him much with female voters when he said, “You may not always agree with me . . . but you’ll always know where I stand.”

Then there is the second reason why Cuccinelli is having trouble clawing his way back into the race. The gifts scandal in Richmond has undermined what should have been one of his strongest arguments: that his opponent is ethically challenged.

McAuliffe, a former Democratic Party national chairman and world-class fundraiser, has a questionable record in both campaign fundraising and private business dealings.

Cuccinelli highlighted this in one of his best lines of the night, saying that with McAuliffe in the governor’s mansion, the commonwealth would have to change its motto from “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”) to “quid pro quo.”

But Cuccinelli spent at least as much time in the debate trying to explain why he took $18,000 in gifts from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams Sr. as he did pounding McAuliffe over transgressions such as the current federal investigation of a “green car” company that the Democrat founded.

Cuccinelli did not directly answer a pointed question from my Washington Post colleague Ben Pershing as to why he thought Williams gave him the gifts. He seemed to point the finger at Gov. Robert McDonnell (R).

“Ironically, I met Mr. Williams through the governor,” Cuccinelli said. “What was going on there didn’t seem like a big deal.”

Cuccinelli did ring up points by calling out McAuliffe for being unaware that a governor’s signature would not be required to amend the state’s constitution, if the General Assembly repealed the state’s ban on gay marriage.

That reinforced a narrative promoted by the GOP that McAuliffe doesn’t know enough about Virginia government to be an effective governor.

But voters have known from the start that Cuccinelli had considerable experience in state office, while McAuliffe has none. The Republican’s problem is the record he’s built while accumulating all that experience, which McAuliffe tried to highlight during the debate.

Since he received the GOP nomination in May, Cuccinelli has been trying to copy McDonnell’s successful strategy from four years ago of playing down his conservative stances on hot-button topics. Instead, he emphasizes jobs and his more palatable social views.

That approach was evident from Cuccinelli’s opening statement in the debate. He referred to his efforts over the years to stop sexual assaults and to help the homeless and the mentally ill.

But Cuccinelli had other priorities as attorney general. He used the office to wage high-profile efforts, often unsuccessfully, for pet causes such as opposing Obamacare, abortion, equal rights for gays, and environmental regulation.

Given that, Virginia voters are right to be suspicious that he would act as governor just as he did as the state’s top lawman.

Unless he can reverse that perception— or McAuliffe stumbles — Cuccinelli faces a tough path to win the governorship. In this potentially pivotal debate, the first to be broadcast statewide, nothing changed to make that trek significantly easier.

I discusss local issues at 8:50 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to