Dirty War Hard to Curtail in Wednesday’s Virginia Governor Debate

In a campaign already awash in negative ads, personal attacks are more than likely.

By: Harry Jaffe

Northern Virginia—the site and subject of Wednesday’s second major debate between gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli—doesn’t lack for substantive issues.

The number one issue in most voters’ minds is traffic. Number two: same. Ditto three.

Jobs loom large, especially in the era of the sequester, shrinking federal budgets, and an impending federal government shutdown.

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and in the region’s major rivers, the Potomac, Shenandoah, and James, needs attention, and there is the looming question of who will fund proposed wind turbines in the ocean off Virginia Beach.

But if the candidates follow the tenor of the race so far, don’t look for deep dives into the issues in tonight’s debate. Both Democrat McAuliffe and Republican Cuccinelli come to their lecterns eager to exploit the other’s flaws in a campaign that has become awash in negative ads.

McAuliffe’s résumé is his liability: heavy on raising money for Democratic candidates, principally Bill and Hillary Clinton, and light on job creation, despite his venture building hybrid cars. Having promised to establish his auto company in Virginia, he moved it to Mississippi and has yet to build much of a business. Look for Cuccinelli to hammer McAuliffe on both soft spots.

But the Fairfax County audience may root harder for a candidate who tried (and failed) to foster green energy than for Cuccinelli, who has used his post as attorney general to attack research into climate change.

Cuccinelli’s hard-right positions on women’s issues will also make him vulnerable, especially in Northern Virginia, which leans left in a state trending purple. A Washington Post poll this week showed McAuliffe in the lead, thanks to female voters, who favor him by a 24-point margin.

Expect McAuliffe to expand on this advantage by repeatedly knifing Cuccinelli for his stands on abortion, gay marriage, and the rights of fathers.

Also look for McAuliffe to rub Cuccinelli’s face in the muddy mess concerning gifts and funds that Virginia nutrition company Star Scientific gave to Governor Bob McDonnell and his family, now the subject of a federal investigation. Cuccinelli received nearly $18,000 in gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams and was slow to report them, as required.

Moderator Chuck Todd, political director and White House correspondent for NBC News, will have his hands full. According to the debate rules, on which the campaigns called the shots, each candidate will deliver an opening and closing statement. They get 90 seconds to respond to each question, followed by a 30-second rebuttal. That allows way too much time to veer from substance to pure character attack.

Here’s how the candidates can win the debate:

Cuccinelli must soften his attack dog demeanor, emphasize his public service in the state legislature and as attorney general, and dwell on his ability to create jobs.

McAuliffe, who can come off as glib and arrogant, must convince voters he’s honest and committed to Virginia, despite his thin résumé.

The debate, hosted by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, along with NBC4 Washington, is scheduled Wednesday from 7 to 8 PM. It will take place at Capital One Bank’s headquarters in McLean and will be televised on NBC.