Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe, right, gestures during the Virginia Bar Association debate with Republican challenger Ken Cuccinelli, left, in Hot Springs, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Steve Helber/AP)
Senior Regional Correspondent

Terry McAuliffe faced one major challenge in his debut performance Saturday as the Virginia Democrats’ nominee for the state’s top office: He had to appear gubernatorial.

He pulled it off, mostly.

Appearing in his first face-to-face debate with Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe generally projected a relaxed and knowledgeable political persona that contrasted with his reputation as a hyperactive, self-described “hustler.”

The Democrat also claimed the moderate, middle ground on the key issue of transportation and effectively highlighted Cuccinelli’s conservative positions on social issues.

But McAuliffe tripped up by getting his facts wrong on a couple of points when he attacked Cuccinelli over the latter’s involvement with businessman Jonnie Williams Sr., who’s at the center of a scandal over gifts and loans to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, gestures during the Virginia Bar Association debate with Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli in Hot Springs, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

The exaggerations marred what otherwise was a solid performance that ought to assuage Democrats’ concerns that McAuliffe, who’s never held elective office, would self-destruct in his first direct contact with a veteran campaigner who’s never lost an election.

Democrats have painful memories from the 2009 gubernatorial race, when lackluster debate showings by Democratic candidate Sen. Creigh Deeds (Bath) contributed to his landslide defeat by McDonnell.

For his part, Cuccinelli had no apparent gaffes and stuck to his plan to portray McAuliffe as a self-interested Washington insider who doesn’t care about average Virginians. He repeatedly brought up McAuliffe’s decision as head of an automotive company to build a plant in Mississippi rather than in Martinsville, in job-starved southern Virginia.

The attacks didn’t seem to faze McAuliffe. He said he would have preferred to invest in Virginia but, as a businessman, he had to do what was best for the company.

By contrast, Cuccinelli spent much time on the defensive explaining some past positions, such as his strong opposition to abortion and description of gays as “soulless” and “self-destructive.”

The Republican sought to reassure his conservative base by saying he hadn’t changed his mind on those issues, while reaching out to moderates by emphasizing that jobs and the economy would be his top priorities as governor. (McDonnell, facing a similar political quandary four years ago, used the same approach.)

McAuliffe also scored points by hammering the attorney general over his opposition to this year’s bipartisan transportation funding deal, which McAuliffe called “a defining moment” for the state. To highlight Cuccinelli’s isolation on the issue, the Democrat repeatedly noted that the bill was championed by other top Republicans, including McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

The debate was noteworthy for the spirited personal attacks levied by both sides and the relatively small fraction of time spent on the gifts scandal in Richmond, which has preoccupied the political class for weeks.

Cuccinelli was focused and intense. He looked stern for much of the contest and didn’t display as much humor as he often has in the past.

McAuliffe fulfilled his advisers’ goal to restrain his sometimes agitated personality and sound well-informed about Virginia issues. He made a point of mentioning specific highways around the state that needed improvements.

On the other hand, McAuliffe’s misstatements about the Williams case only reinforced his reputation as a slick, fast-talking operator.

Shortly after the debate, McAuliffe had to amend his statement that a prosecutor had found that Cuccinelli “should” have been charged for failing to disclose gifts from Williams. The prosecutor said Cuccinelli couldn’t be charged under Virginia laws, which have been criticized for their laxity.

McAuliffe also said a judge had taken away a lawsuit from Cuccinelli’s office because of conflict-of-interest concerns. The attorney general requested the recusal.

By going too far in trying to portray Cuccinelli in the worst possible light, McAuliffe reinforced fears that he’s undisciplined and irresponsible.

It’s hard to know how much impact the debate will have on voters. It’s safe to say that few were watching the Web broadcast at 11 a.m. on a Saturday in late July.

Instead, the event was likely to play a bigger role in establishing early judgments about issues, personalities and strategy among the candidates, their campaigns and the media.

By that standard, McAuliffe came out ahead. He did better than many expected and showed he could play in this league. But he needs to be more careful with his facts, or a tendency to hyperbole could ruin his newfound gravitas.

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