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Opinion Terry McAuliffe scored a much-needed debate win, but it’s still anyone’s race

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, debate Sept. 28 at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)
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Terry McAuliffe had an important job in Tuesday night’s debate with Glenn Youngkin: Change the narrative.

To a large extent, McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, succeeded. Unlike in the first debate, McAuliffe looked comfortable, sounded sharp and, most important, got some priceless gifts from Youngkin, the Republican nominee.

That doesn’t mean the race is over and all will be well for McAuliffe and the Democratic ticket. Despite the commonwealth’s steady move from red to blue over the past dozen years or so and the rapid decay of the once-formidable Virginia GOP into a (losing) Donald Trump admiration society, outside events could still dictate November’s results.

No one knows that better than McAuliffe.

Heading into the second and final face-to-face meeting between the two major party gubernatorial nominees, McAuliffe found himself on the back foot. National Democrats were increasingly worried about the Virginia gubernatorial race. It’s close. Too close. The Cook Political Report went as far as to move its rating from lean Democrat to toss up, though Virginia’s own Sabato’s Crystal Ball still has the contest as leans Democratic.

Still, none of this was the normal, late season Democratic panic talking. It was McAuliffe himself. According to the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, McAuliffe “and his advisers have been blunt with Biden aides about the closeness of the governor’s race and have argued that the souring political environment for Democrats is the reason that the contest has grown more competitive.”

That souring environment is real and it could get downright destructive. Like tea party Republicans before them, progressives are intent on driving the Democratic legislative agenda onto the rocks. McAuliffe and other office-seekers will be the immediate collateral damage.

That’s why McAuliffe has — rightly — tried to put daylight between himself at the congressional circus. From the Times:

“Voters didn’t send Democrats to Washington to sit around and chitty-chat all day,” said Mr. McAuliffe, himself a former national party chair. “They need to get [the infrastructure and budget bills] done.”

Is that enough to change the narrative of the past few days? At the margins, perhaps. And in close races, movement at the margins can be critical to the final result. Again, no one knows this better than McAuliffe, who narrowly defeated Ken Cuccinelli II for the state’s top job in 2013.

As Paul Goldman and I noted about the results of that race, outside issues and unforced McAuliffe errors almost handed Cuccinelli the win. McAuliffe appears to have learned those lessons: don’t get cocky and, most of all, be willing to throw shade at your fellow Democrats when necessary.

It also helped McAuliffe’s cause that Youngkin stumbled on vaccines. Youngkin gave his standard “personal choice” answer to a question about coronavirus vaccinations. But when pressed about whether schoolchildren should still be subjected to mandatory vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and other diseases, the tyro candidate said: “Those vaccines can be mandatory. I do believe the covid vaccine is one everyone should get but we shouldn’t mandate it.”

Voters are left to wonder how Youngkin will parse the rest of the list of mandatory childhood vaccines. They can be mandatory, too, perhaps. But a coronavirus vaccine? You’re free to choose. Unless you happen to be an Afghan refugee, in which case Youngkin agrees with the Biden administration that coronavirus and other vaccines are required.

The bottom line from Tuesday night’s debate: McAuliffe changed the narrative. For now. Having come out flat and unfocused in the first debate, he won the second. That gives his supporters a much-needed lift and a temporary break from the string of worrisome polling data and deteriorating national headlines.

It won’t last. National events and the Youngkin campaign will make sure of it.