BLACKSBURG, Va. — Ken Cuccinelli II and Terry McAuliffe took turns tying the other to Washington partisanship and offered sharply different visions on gun control, job creation and health care policy in the final debate of the Virginia governor’s race Thursday night.
The hour-long debate echoed the main themes of a deeply contentious campaign that comes to a close in just 12 days. Cuccinelli tried to cast McAuliffe, the exuberant fundraiser and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as unserious, partisan and ill-prepared to govern. McAuliffe portrayed his opponent, the Republican attorney general, as far too extreme for most Virginians, particularly on social issues such as abortion.
Cuccinelli linked McAuliffe to the troubled rollout of the new federal health-care law — an effort to reclaim an anti-Washington mantle that slipped away during a government shutdown blamed largely on Republicans. McAuliffe likened Cuccinelli’s no-compromise positions to the politics that caused the shutdown.
“Just this week he refused to say whether he supported reopening government,” McAuliffe said, referring to Cuccinelli’s comment that he wasn’t sure how he would have voted on the spending deal that ended the federal shutdown.
Countered Cuccinelli: “Terry not only supported Obamacare, he didn’t think it went far enough,” Cuccinelli said. “Can you imagine?”
With McAuliffe consistently leading in the polls, Cuccinelli sought to play the aggressor onstage at Virginia Tech in an effort to regain momentum in his final appearance before a statewide audience. There was no dramatic moment likely to change the trajectory of the race.
The debate was sponsored by the university and the Roanoke television station WDBJ.
“Terry McAuliffe literally did nothing for Virginia or Virginians before deciding to run for governor. Nothing,” Cuccinelli said at the debate’s start.
Instead, Cuccinelli said, “My opponent’s plan has been to attack me and scare Virginians — especially women — into voting for him; to speak in platitudes.”
Cuccinelli repeatedly returned to what he described as a lack of substance in McAuliffe’s policy blueprints, and he accused him of making promises he couldn’t back up.
“Those are platitudes. They’re not plans,” Cuccinelli said. “I like those too. I like education. I like puppies. But I don’t bring a puppy home if I don’t have a plan for how I’m going to deal with that puppy. ... And he’ s all puppy and no plan.”
From the start, McAuliffe called himself someone “who will work with both parties to focus on jobs and education.” Cuccinelli, he said, “has become increasingly desperate” and has lobbed “false attacks.”
McAuliffe frequently cited endorsements by Republicans as evidence that Cuccinelli is too extreme for Virginia — and that McAuliffe would work across the aisle.
“Compromise is not a bad word. My opponent will not compromise,” McAuliffe said.
Cuccinelli cited past instances where he had made deals — including on transportation and abortion — but noted others where he wouldn’t.
“There is a time to fight and there is a time to compromise,” Cuccinelli said.
The bulk of both candidates’ rhetoric – and their ads – have been negative, leaving many voters turned off by the race and unsatisfied with their choices. The third option on the ballot, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, was not invited to the Blacksburg debate because he did not meet the polling threshold agreed to by McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli and McAuliffe both made plays for Sarvis supporters Thursday night. The Republican noted that he has been endorsed by former representative Ron Paul of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who are widely admired by Libertarians. McAuliffe suggested he agreed with Sarvis on many issues and stressed that he would have welcomed Sarvis to the debate.
Several times through the hour-long debate, the two men clashed over the Affordable Care Act.
McAuliffe touted his support for Medicaid expansion, which states may opt for — and the federal government would largely pay for -- under the health law. He said he would rely on the savings in state dollars to boost spending for education and other programs.
Cuccinelli mocked Medicaid expansion as the “magical money tree” that McAuliffe thinks would pay for everything.
“Folks, it’s welfare,” Cuccinelli said of Medicaid. “It’s not a jobs program.”
After the debate, McAuliffe acknowledged to reporters that the HealthCare.gov rollout has been flawed.
“Obviously it doesn’t work and whoever was responsible for it should be held accountable, and it needs to be fixed,” McAuliffe said.
Gun issues also played a key role in a debate staged at the school where 32 people were killed by a gunman in 2007. The back and forth over firearms provided a dramatic window into the way the political landscape of Virginia, a once-deeply pro-gun state, has evolved in recent years.
“I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA,” McAuliffe said after making clear he did not support the idea of arming teachers in schools. He emphasized that he supports universal background checks, even for currently exempt purchases at gun shows, which Cuccinelli has opposed.
Cuccinelli stressed his own longstanding work on mental-health issues and on keeping guns away from the mentally ill, but he did not say whether he supported arming teachers. He bragged that he is an “A-rated candidate” according to the NRA.
The two men shared a tense exchange that began when Cuccinelli explained how he would cut taxes while also closing tax loopholes.
“We have a program in place, and if I don’t pay for them, I don’t get them. It’s not like Washington where Terry comes from. We have to pay for the things we propose,” Cuccinelli said. Then Cuccinelli stopped midway through his response and offered McAuliffe part of his allotted time to detail how he would pay for his agenda.
“As the moderator noted here, you can tell us how you’ll pay for any of your plans. You can have my 30 seconds,”Cuccinelli said.
“First of all, we need to go through and look for efficiencies. Like I’ve said millions of times,” McAuliffe said.
Ahead in the polls, McAuliffe appears to be playing it safe in the closing weeks of the contest. In the 12 days leading up to Thursday’s debate, he had just one public event – an Oct. 19 rally with Hillary Rodham Clinton in Falls Church.
But he is planning to tour the state with Bill Clinton from Sunday through Wednesday. Cuccinelli will appear with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at two events Monday and with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) Tuesday.