Thanks to scandals, the Virginia governor's race between Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe is less about the issues and more about the candidates' baggage. (The Washington Post)

On an otherwise serene Sunday recently, Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates were embroiled in the kind of needling and jabbing that is defining their race to lead the commonwealth.

The subject: whether Democrat Terry McAuliffe proved that he’s masquerading as a Virginian when he said a highway along the southern edge of the state — Route 58 — needs to be widened to four lanes.

“Grab the popcorn,” Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s team announced in an e-mail to reporters just after noon, promising the “World Premiere” of a video with a “new reminder” of McAuliffe’s “lack of Virginia knowledge.” Route 58, the Republicans insisted, is already four lanes.

“Welcome to Virginia, Terry,” the video proclaims.

McAuliffe’s team, in its own e-mail at 1:41 p.m., dismissed the film as “false” and accused Cuccinelli of caring “more about attacking his opponent than he does about the truth.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli shakes hands with supporters before the start of the Fairfax Fourth of July parade in Fairfax on July 4. Cuccinelli is running for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

The Republicans weren’t finished: “McAuliffe’s Route 58 blunder” was the title of their next attack at 4:20 p.m.; McAuliffe’s “Route 58 mess” arrived at 8:06 p.m. More than eight hours after the spat began, McAuliffe’s spokesman tweeted: “Still marveling at the amazing swing and miss from the Cuccinelli campaign today.”

Even by the standards of modern political combat, the race to succeed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is an ugly contest between two candidates who are devoting vast resources to disparaging each other as unsuited for the job.

Every day, it seems, Cuccinelli’s forces find ways to portray McAuliffe as an unethical and unprincipled carpetbagger, a political opportunist who doesn’t possess the government experience or knowledge of Virginia needed for the state’s top job.

At the same time, McAuliffe’s team pounces at the chance to depict Cuccinelli as a conservative zealot who is anti-gay and anti-woman and whose views on social issues are too extreme for a state evolving into a hub of cosmopolitan life.

Beginning more than six months before the election, the campaign’s unyielding ferocity — displayed at the candidates’ first debate, in television and Internet ads, and through e-mail and Twitter — is eclipsing what they say about the economy, health care and education.

“Where’s the meat in the campaign?” asked former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D). “They both need to repair the perceptions of them in the general public. But you don’t repair it by tearing the other guy down.”

Voters “are sick of it,” Wilder said. “They want to know what you’re going to do about the economy, jobs, spending. How are you going to make governance better? You don’t hear that. You hear negatives — Boom! Boom!

More Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

Time magazine proclaimed the race “The Dirtiest, Nastiest, Low-Down Campaign in America,” one that has drawn comparisons to the polarization of the U.S. Congress and the 2012 presidential contest.

“We’re looking at the Washingtonization of Virginia politics,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington professor. “The nasty partisan attacks, the astonishing gridlock that marks the nation’s capital is increasingly the shape of Virginia, as well.

“If you want collisions, you’re living in the right time,” Farnsworth said, comparing the campaign to a NASCAR race. “But if you want a government capable of dealing with problems and coming up with solutions, maybe the car crashes aren’t so great.”

Attacking early and often

Virginia has had bitter campaigns before, perhaps the best example being the 1994 Senate race in which “liar” was among the many insults Col. Oliver L. North and Charles S. Robb traded.

Yet the commonwealth remains a state saturated with Southern-style politeness, and its political culture is relatively genteel. Issues often have driven the state’s gubernatorial races, whether it was James S. Gilmore III’s proposal to eliminate the car tax in 1997, or Mark Warner’s pledge to repair the state’s finances in 2001, or McDonnell’s promise to create jobs in 2009.

What distinguishes the 2013 race, said M. Boyd Marcus, a Republican political consultant, is that the candidates started attacking early and that “there isn’t anything substantively positive that either side is putting forth. They’ve said something about policies, but no one is making a policy the centerpiece of their campaign, other than repeating the word ‘jobs.’ ”

Instead, the campaigns focus on the candidates’ credentials, said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst, with each side “arguing that the other is simply unqualified. That leads to tremendous negativity and the personalization of the campaign.”

“What I hear,” Holsworth said, “just from ordinary folks, is, ‘This is a tough choice — I wish I had a third choice. Are we really going to have to choose between these two?’ 

Democrats including Brian Moran, the former chairman of the state party who ran for governor in 2009, fear that the negative tone will turn off voters and hurt McAuliffe, whose core supporters may not be as passionate as the tea party activists who embrace Cuccinelli.

Yet such Republicans as Tom Davis, a former member of the House of Representatives, said negative campaigns also motivate voters because they feel that they “have to come out and stop that person.”

“Nothing is automatic in this business,” he said. “It’s a great race to watch. It’s going to be high theater. And, basically, the truth is going to be one of the first casualties.”

Neither side agrees on who initiated the nastiness.

Cuccinelli’s supporters say that Democrats started it in February when they staged mock readings of the attorney general’s book, “The Last Line of Defense,” which laid out his conservative views.

McAuliffe’s team says that Cuccinelli’s loyalists first attacked in April, when the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, paid for a radio ad describing McAuliffe as “far outside the mainstream.”

Not letting up

What is beyond dispute is that both sides have maintained a barrage since the spring, with Republicans sending e-mail blasts with such titles as “Terry & The Truth: Complete Strangers” and “Tricky Terry Strikes Again.”

Cuccinelli’s forces have criticized McAuliffe for releasing only summaries of his tax returns; mocked him as a “real family man” for writing in his memoir that he left his pregnant wife’s hospital room to attend a party; and dismissed him as “Terry the Exaggerator” for playing up the importance of his support for McDonnell’s transportation initiative.

In recent days, a conservative group, Citizens United, released “Fast Terry,” a slick, 29-minute video denigrating McAuliffe’s business ventures, particularly GreenTech. The electric-car company, co-founded by McAuliffe, is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its use of a program to give foreign investors visas.

Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s strategist, said the Republican has “been doing very-concerted and focused policy rollouts” about jobs, economic development and education “because campaigns cannot be just about why the other guy shouldn’t be elected.”

But LaCivita added: “When you have an opponent like Terry McAuliffe, which is a target-rich environment, you never run out of opportunities. We could talk about Terry McAuliffe three times a day for 365 days a year.”

LaCivita advised the Swift boat veterans who attacked John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004, and he has become the target of Democrats’ ire.

Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, wrote a fundraising letter on McAuliffe’s behalf urging Democrats to contribute $5 to defeat “LaCivita, Cuccinelli and their fear-mongering politics.”

McAuliffe and his allies have hammered Cuccinelli with e-mail blasts carrying such titles as “Ken Cuccinelli’s Extreme Social Agenda, Front and Center” and “New Video Shows Cuccinelli Admitting he Misleads Virginians about His True Extremist Agenda.”

Democrats have produced half a dozen attack ads for television, including one focusing on Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion and another called “Witch Hunt,” about his lawsuit against a climate scientist.

Josh Schwerin, a McAuliffe spokesman, said in an e-mail that the Democrat has talked at length about such issues as the economy and jobs. “While the Cuccinelli campaign has focused on character attacks,” Schwerin wrote, “when we’ve drawn contrasts, they’ve been on substantive policy issues.”

The animosity was palpable at their July 20 debate in Hot Springs.

“Instead of putting Virginia first, you put Terry first,” Cuccinelli said, telling the audience that McAuliffe would “promise you anything” to get votes.

“You are the true Trojan horse of Virginia politics,” McAuliffe said at another point. “You come in pretending to be one thing, and you really are something else.”

The discussion turned to the economy, and McAuliffe said areas such as Martinsville “need to open up their communities.” Referring to Route 58, he said, “How you do that is, I say, four-lane 58 all the way out from the Port [of Virginia] so we can get the goods from the Port all the way to the commerce of America.”

A week later, Cuccinelli’s team launched their attack video, “Road Trip,” which used a time-elapse camera to show that the 500-mile road is almost entirely four lanes from the Port heading east through Martinsville.

What the video doesn’t show is that the road is two lanes in large portions west of Martinsville.

The next day, Cuccinelli’s campaign was still promoting its “world premiere” on Twitter.

An instant later, Schwerin responded: “Really? Still going with this one?”