In the days leading up to the second gubernatorial debate Wednesday, Democrats in Virginia made clear they were expecting Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli to throw the kitchen sink at his main opponent, Terry McAuliffe, in an effort to shakeup the polls.
By the debate's end, what Democrats witnessed was largely the same Cuccinelli they saw in the race's first head-to-head and at various forums and campaign stops over the summer.
Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, spoke at length about his experience in Virginia government, using the consistent campaign line that he's the only candidate “who won't need on-the-job training.”
“I'm the only candidate in this race with a lifetime of fighting for Virginians, whether it's preventing sexual assault, helping the homeless or working to help those suffering from mental illness, a passion of mine for more than a decade-and-a-half,” Cuccinelli said on the debate stage at Capital One bank headquarters.
McAuliffe used large segments of his time to speak on the need for bipartisanship and the pitfalls that could come from having a staunchly conservative, pro-life, anti-gay marriage governor.
“The choice in this race is simple, which candidate is going to govern from the mainstream, work with both parties and focus on those economic issues that Virginians are concentrated on,” McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said.
The hour-long debate, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, ended without a clear-cut victor, some observers noted.
“Partisans, predictably, will insist their candidate won. Both [Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli] made missteps. Neither hurt himself much,” Larry Sabato, a political scientist and director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics, wrote on Twitter. “Anybody who thinks this debate changed much doesn't understand debates' limited effect on a [gubernatorial] campaign. Small audience.”
Debate moderator Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News, caught each candidate refusing to give specifics on certain issues.
For McAuliffe, his waffling came when Todd pressed him to put a price tag on his spending plan for the commonwealth. McAuliffe said he can't do that until he knows what will happen with the state's Medicaid expansion, which the Democrat has repeatedly said will bring millions into the commonwealth each year, create jobs and expand health care for many of Virginia's poor.
Cuccinelli's dodge came when the moderator asked him for specific tax loopholes or exemptions he'd eliminate to help pay for his proposed $1.4 billion in tax cuts. The Republican said there are “scores of them” within Virginia code, each of which must be analyzed. But he wouldn't name specific items.
Another minor gaffe Wednesday came when McAuliffe said he would sign any bill that came to his desk to end the gay marriage ban in Virginia's constitution.
Cuccinelli quickly pointed out, “Well, it actually doesn't happen in the form of a bill. It's a constitutional amendment, so it never comes to the governor.”
When McAuliffe was asked about the gay marriage comment during a post-debate press conference, he said he's aware a change to the commonwealth's constitution must be implemented through a referendum. He continued, “As I've always said, what I want to do as governor is sign pieces of legislation for equal rights for all Virginia's citizens.”
The Northern Virginia-critical issue of transportation was touched on only briefly Wednesday, with McAuliffe highlighting that he lobbied for the 2013 bipartisan transportation compromise that passed the General Assembly – one that Cuccinelli repeatedly spoke out against.
Without a decisive victory for Cuccinelli, McAuliffe seemingly remains in the gubernatorial driver's seat. In the latest Real Clear Politics average of prominent polls, McAuliffe holds a more than 4 point advantage. Separate Washington Post and NBC News/Marist polls in late September show McAuliffe ahead by 5 points.
The third and final debate between the candidates will be held Oct. 24 in Blacksburg.