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Five things to watch in the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe debate

Ready, set, debate!


Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File);  Republican candidate and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, right. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

With just weeks to go until the Nov. 5 election, Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe will debate for a second time. The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and NBC4 Washington will host the debate from 7-8 p.m.

To get you set, below are the five biggest things to watch. And be sure to follow The Washington Post's full package of coverage of the debate, including a live blog beginning at 7 p.m.

1. Cuccinelli's climb: A pair of polls released this week -- one from The Post, the other from NBC News and Marist College -- showed McAuliffe leading by five to eight points. It's hardly an insurmountable deficit, but it's a deficit nonetheless. That means Cuccinelli is the one coming into the debate with ground to make up. A solid performance is just what he needs. A draw would be a win for McAuliffe, given where the horse race stands.

2. The personal touch. When these two candidates first debated back in July, things got personal. McAuliffe called Cuccinelli the "true Trojan horse of Virginia politics." The Republican dubbed his opponent a "Washington insider." The race has only intensified since that time. Look for more attacks tonight that are meant to cut into the character of two candidates. For McAuliffe, that means casting Cuccinelli as an ideologue posing as something else. For Cuccinelli that means painting a portrait of a McAuliffe out of touch with Virginia and beholden to national Democratic interests. Voters tend to tune into campaigns much more after Labor Day. A late-September, prime-time debate is just the setting to gain new clarity in the image battle that has been playing out for months.

3. Women voters. In May, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli were running about even among women. According to the latest Post poll, the Democrat has opened up a 24-point lead. That's quite a swing. And it comes amid a concerted Democratic effort to cast Cuccinelli as extreme on abortion an other women's issues. Here's a chance for the Republican to speak directly to a large audience of women, and try improve his standing. McAuliffe, meanwhile, is expected to try buttress his advantage.

4. There's something about the Fairfax Chamber... Four years ago, Democrat Creigh Deeds stumbled at this debate, causing confusion with a comment about taxes and making things worse by telling a a female reporter after the debate, "I think I made myself clear, young lady," Four years earlier, Republican Jerry Kilgore's "hypothetical question" comment was tossed back in his face by moderator Tim Russert, prompting laughter and embarrassment. Remember, the most memorable debates are those in which a candidate makes a misstep or big gaffe (think Rick Perry's "oops" moment). Will this debate once again be the setting of mistake that shifts the ground in the campaign?

5. Scandal talk: Both candidates are carrying baggage that has taken a toll. For Cuccinelli, it's his connection to a donor at the center of gifts-scandal that has seized Gov. Robert McDonnell (R). For McAuliffe, it's the federal investigation of his former car company, Greentech. A third of voters say they former makes them less likely to vote for Cuccinelli, while two-fifths say they are less likely to vote for McAuliffe because of the latter, the Post poll shows. In short, this is damaging stuff. And how the candidates handle it all during the debate could make it more/less damaging during the stretch run.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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