McAuliffe and Cuccinelli Hone Messages Before First Debate In Virginia

On the eve of the first debate of the 2013 Virginia Governor contest, the two campaigns, for Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, have already revealed their game plans for defining each other...

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Joe Mahoney / The Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP

Virginia gubernatorial hopefuls Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli shake hands as they meet before a luncheon sponsored by the Virginia Public Access Project, Thursday, May 30, 2013 in Richmond, Va.

Correction appended at 9:15 AM

On the eve of the first debate of the 2013 Virginia Governor contest, the two campaigns, for Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, have already revealed their game plans for defining each other. “Cuccinelli is a talented, experienced debater and lawyer,” conceded Josh Schwerin, McAuliffe’s press secretary. “But his divisive record is one that no amount of spin will hide from Virginia voters.” He added, “Ken Cuccinelli has spent his career advancing his extreme social agenda.”

Anna Nix, Cuccinelli’s spokeswoman, shot back. “Perhaps Terry McAuliffe will take this opportunity to come clean with voters regarding his sketchy business dealings, broken job creation promises, and refusal to release his tax returns or address the offshore tax havens he is associated with,” she said.

McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, leads by four percent in two polls released this week, one by left-leaning Public Policy Polling, where the spread was 41% to 37%, and the other by Quinnipiac University, where the spread was 43% to 39%. Another poll, released Wednesday by Roanoke College, reports that Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, leads McAuliffe, 37% to 31%, and 27% remain undecided.

McAuliffe, who Cuccinelli’s campaign concedes is a better fundraiser, has over $6 million on hand, while Cuccinelli has only $2.65 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. McAuliffe out-raised Cuccinelli in June by $800,000.

If you live in the Virginia-DC market, you perhaps have already seen over the past few weeks the Democrats’ ads on Judge JudyDays of Our LivesBig Bang Theory, and Dr. Oz, according to public filingsWashingtonians who watch CBS and ABC will be interrupted through next Tuesday when they watch the Price is RightDr. PhilRachel Ray, Katie Couric, Wheel of FortuneJeopardy!, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Letterman with more ads from the Dems. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, has spent his more limited funds on NBC’s Access Hollywood Live and Ellen, in addition to news programming over the past few months.

As the polling suggests, the hundreds of thousands of dollars aren’t making much of a difference. The largest news out of Virginia, the questionable ethical choices made by Governor Bob McDonnell, has sucked up the interest in the campaign. “It dominates the coverage, which makes it harder to talk to people about growing jobs and about a positive vision for Virginia,” Cuccinelli said in an interview with USA TODAY. McAuliffe agreed to some extent: “It’s there, but what people want to know about is the huge challenges” facing the next governor.

The Quinnipiac poll reports that only 14 percent say that the controversy surrounding McDonnell make them less likely to vote for his fellow Republican. Cuccinelli has had to recuse himself from the state investigation as he had a personal relationship with Jonnie Williams, the donor who gave McDonnell $145,000 and McDonnell’s wife $15,000 in luxury clothing and a $6,500 Rolex watch, among other gifts. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring announced Thursday that the investigation into the way Cuccinelli disclosed gifts given to him by Williams found nothing illegal. Cuccinelli has begun to separate from McDonnell, saying the situation has been “very painful for Virginia” and “completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions.”

On Saturday, the candidates will begin to distinguish themselves on the issues that do matter to Virginia. According to Virginia Democrats and the Cuccinelli campaign, those include women’s issues and Obamacare. “I believe our positions on Obamacare offer one of the strongest contrasts in this campaign,” says Cuccinelli in a video released Thursday. “My opponent not only supported this law, he advocated for going further, arguing for the dreaded public option.” McAuliffe did argue for the public option in 2009, but has not been pushing for it on the campaign trail.

“McAuliffe’s lead is built on women voters,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. His poll shows that McAuliffe leads the demographic 48% to 32%.

A press aide for the Virginia Democratic Party says that “the central feature” of  Cuccinelli’s record is “his preoccupation with injecting his personal agenda into decisions that Virginia women make with their doctors.” Cuccinelli has compared his fight against abortion to the abolitionists’ fight against slavery, and is firmly pro-life.

There are many questions that remain heading into the debate. Neither candidate has truly distinguished themselves with Virginia’s business community, even though both campaigns emphasize a jobs-first message. In the debate, McAuliffe will likely string Cuccinelli’s social agenda as a hindrance in attracting jobs from out of state. Cuccinelli in turn will hit McAuliffe’s business record, which isn’t as sterling as he hoped after his investment in GreenTech Automotive didn’t yield nearly as many new jobs as promised.

Despite his huge fundraising lead, McAuliffe still faces the same major problem Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds had in the last Virginia governor’s race in 2009: low turnout. “This election is about nothing but turnout,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Virginia Democratic strategist. “Virginia in low turnout is always a red state.”

At this point in the 2009 cycle, Deeds and McDonnell were neck-and-neck. Four months later McDonnell pulled out a nearly 18 point victory.

Correction: The Virginia Democratic Party commented on the “central feature” of Cuccinelli’s record, not the McAuliffe campaign.