Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe Round 1: The Blow by Blow of The First Virginia Debate

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Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wasted no time at their first formal Virginia gubernatorial debate Saturday morning. Cuccinelli said the state must choose between “Union Terry or Frugal Ken.” McAuliffe said the choice was between “rigid ideology and mainstream compromise.”

Cuccinelli repeated the false claim that McAuliffe opposes Virginia’s right to work law, and defended his proposed $1.4 billion tax cut. McAuliffe argued that Cuccinelli’s social views could hurt Virginia economically, and said Cuccinelli opposed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s huge transportation bill, which the governor touted as “historic bi-partisan legislation,” for “ideological reasons.”

McAuliffe brought up a letter Cuccinelli sent in March 2010 to the state’s public colleges and universities asking them to remove references to sexual orientation from campus nondiscrimination policies. The letter reportedly jeopardized McDonell’s efforts to lure defense giant Northrup Grumman from Los Angeles to Fairfax. McDonnell eventually assuaged the company’s concerns. “We have to be open and welcoming,” said McAuliffe. “The attacks on women, the attacks on gays, the attacks on children who have come here from immigrant parents…We’ve got to stop it.”

The best attacks Cuccinelli delivered were on McAuliffe’s business record, which includes his time at GreenTech, an electric car company that chose to open a manufacturing plant in Mississippi instead of Martinsville, Virginia. “The only candidate who has chased business out of Virginia is you. It’s Terry. Not me,” said Cuccinelli. “You picked Mississippi. So run for governor in Mississippi.”

McAuliffe responded he had a “fiduciary duty” to shareholders. “A fiduciary duty frankly, that you forgot, Ken, as Attorney General when you were taking all of these gifts from Jonnie Williams and Star Scientific,” said McAuliffe.

But Cuccinelli spent a good amount of time defending himself on social issues. On abortion, Cuccinelli said, “I do not expect to use the political capital of the governor’s office to be moving those [pro-life] pieces of legislation. My focus is on job creation and job growth.” A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday shows that McAuliffe’s 43 to 39 percent lead is largely due to support among female voters. On homosexuality, Cuccinelli said, “My personal beliefs about the personal challenge of homosexuality haven’t changed.” McAuliffe favors marriage equality.

McAuliffe’s social-problems-are-economic-problems attack led to the most awkward moment of the debate. Around 20 minutes after moderator Judy Woodruff announced the candidates, McAuliffe recounted the last time the candidates were together, at the Northern Virginia Technology council. “We both spoke,” said McAuliffe. “And he [Cuccinelli] said to this leading group of business leaders, I haven’t been extreme on social issues. And you know what happened? They laughed at him.”

Eight seconds passed before Woodruff asked Cuccinelli if he wanted to respond. “Yeah, four people in the front thought that was all real funny,” said Cuccinelli.

“I don’t think this is funny. I think it’s serious.” interrupted McAuliffe. After briefly arguing that McAuliffe would move welfare spending to fund education spending, Cuccinelli said, “This is more of Terry McAuliffe saying whatever he thinks he has to say to get elected.”

McAuliffe did not mention “Giftgate,” a scandal over gifts that has touched both Governor Bob McDonnell and Cuccinelli, until nearly an hour into the 90-minute debate. Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a nutritional supplement company called Star Scientific, gave $145,000 in gifts to McDonnell, his wife and sister. He also gave $18,000 in gifts to Cuccinelli, though a top Virginia prosecutor concluded that the attorney general didn’t break the law.

“Instead of taking him to court, he was taking you to New York City,” said McAuliffe. “He was buying you $1,500 turkey dinners. You know, that’s a lot of turkey,” McAuliffe said to scattered laughter. Cuccinelli, noting that Star Scientific sued Virginia over a tax dispute, said, “The only thing Jonnie Williams got out of the Attorney General’s office is opposition.” Recent polling suggests that a large majority of voters don’t care much about the controversy. McAuliffe didn’t mention Star Scientific in his closing remarks, and neither candidate asked McDonnell to step down.

Cuccinelli said immigration reform would be “very important for America” and “nice to get this off the table so we can move onto other issues.” He did not take a position on the pathway to citizenship. McAuliffe reiterated that he was for a pathway to citizenship and the DREAM Act.

A small proportion of Virginia’s eight million citizens heard what either candidate said. According to the USTREAM counter, only around 2,500 people watched the debate at any one time, and it was not shown live on TV despite having PBS co-sponsor the event with the Virginia Bar Association. The debate was held at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.