Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe and Republican hopeful, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. (Bob Brown, Steve Helber)

It’s easy to see why the Virginia governor’s race between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe has suffered from such a negative, insubstantial debut. Neither candidate wants to run on his record. And who can blame them?

Cuccinelli (R), the state’s attorney general, doesn’t want to alienate moderate voters by playing up the red-meat conservative positions that have made him a tea party star. In a major rollback on a key issue, he said he’ll stop fighting the recently approved big tax increase for roads and transit.

McAuliffe (D), a former Democratic National Committee chair, starts in a hole because he has no record in elective office to advertise. He’d like to run as a can-do businessman. But the GOP is assailing him for dissembling about his experience as chairman of a “green” automotive company and for creating jobs in Mississippi instead of Virginia.

As a result, the two sides are reminding Virginians of a rule of politics: If you’ve got nothing good to say about yourself, then beat up on the other guy.

The GOP, after pummeling McAuliffe over GreenTech Automotive, has demanded that he follow Cuccinelli’s example and release his tax returns. “What’s Terry McAuliffe hiding?” it asks.

The Democrats have been slamming Cuccinelli for two lapses regarding a stock holding in Star Scientific. That’s the nutritional products company also at the center of the wedding gift controversy involving Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Now, all these issues are worth examining, insofar as they reflect on the candidates’ character and ethics.

Democrats demanded that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney release his tax returns last year. It’s hard for them to give McAuliffe a pass on it today.

Cuccinelli has conceded he erred by failing to disclose a stake in Star Scientific. (He divested his stake in Star earlier this month, a spokesman said.) Also, he was late in recusing the attorney general’s office from handling a lawsuit involving the company at the time when he held an interest in it.

Still, it’s safe to say that most Virginians care less about tax returns and stock disclosures than the everyday issues that will affect them directly. In the gubernatorial race four years ago, McDonnell and his opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), tangled primarily over jobs, transportation, taxes and schools.

Today’s candidates address those topics in their standard stump speeches. But the focus has been on the rush to define the opponent as unacceptable.

“It’s been an intensely personal campaign at a very early stage,” said Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University. “The custom has been in many [other] campaigns for candidates to introduce themselves, go positive early, to establish a name brand before going so negative.”

The problem is neither candidate has much positive grist for the electoral mill.

“I don’t think either one of them has anything big and significant and important to run on,” said Quentin Kidd, political scientist at Christopher Newport University. “It’s really an absence of an agenda that has been built up by either candidate, that is acceptable to voters, that makes it necessary for them to tear the other one down to gain some advantage.”

The early efforts are important partly because polls suggest the election will be decided by voters who haven’t yet formed an opinion about the candidates. A Quinnipiac survey in March found that 63 percent of voters hadn’t heard enough about McAuliffe to have a favorable or unfavorable view of him. Even for the high-profile Cuccinelli, the number was 44 percent.

“Neither candidate is well-known among Virginians, particularly McAuliffe, and neither is viewed very positively. There is still a lot of ‘defining’ to do in this campaign,” said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College.

Plenty of time remains for this campaign to evolve into a serious debate about what matters most in Virginia. How should a state that depends on federal spending adapt to U.S. budget cuts? How can schools improve when resources are tight? How shall the new transportation funds be spent?

Both campaigns claim they want the election to turn on such matters.

We’ll see.

Unfortunately, a more typical pattern is that campaigns grow more negative as Election Day approaches.

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