“All Puppy, No Plans”: Cuccinelli Nicks McAuliffe In Final Debate of Virginia Governor Race

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Steve Helber / AP

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, left, shakes the hand of Republican challenger Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, right, after a debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013.

Although he provided the best jabs of the night, Republican state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli may not have landed the knockout punch he needed to shake up the campaign in the third and final debate for the Virginia governor’s race.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who did not commit any campaign-destroying gaffes, appeared tired, rambled, and was cut off repeatedly—even during his opening statement—for going over his allotted time. Cuccinelli appeared calm and in control of his talking points, but failed to rattle his opponent.

When asked what he would like his major achievement to be while in office, Cuccinelli said implementing his jobs plan, which he claims would create 58,000 new jobs through lowering personal and corporate income tax rates. He says he would offset the decrease in revenue by reducing government spending and closing tax loopholes.

“Creating jobs and diversifying the economy,” said McAuliffe, after touching on education reform, carbon capture, research and development tax credits, transportation, health care, and the troubles of sequestration.

Cuccinelli pounced on the apparent lack of focus. “I like puppies,” Cuccinelli said. “But I don’t bring a puppy home if I don’t have a plan to take care of that puppy.” McAuliffe, he said, is “all puppy, no plans.” The response elicited giggles—one of the few crowd reactions of the night.

Third party candidate Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who appears to be the pick of conservative columnist George Will, tweeted, “KC’s jobs plan is weak tea. TM’s nonexistent. Here’s a real, principled, anti-cronyist jobs plan,” linking to his campaign website. Sarvis wasn’t allowed to debate since he did not average at least 10% in public polls, which he missed by fractions of a point at the deadline. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Sarvis now has 10%.

The other memorable moment of the debate occurred on the topic of gun control, an emotional issue at the Virginia Tech campus where the debate was held. McAuliffe made an emotional plea after Cuccinelli ripped him for being the National Rifle Association’s only F-rated statewide candidate this year. “I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA,” said McAuliffe, who supports universal background checks. “As governor I want to keep our communities safe.”

“None of what you’ve asked about would have affected that tragedy,” shot back Cuccinelli, who reiterated that we should respond to tragedies by seeking to improve mental health programs. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political action committee Independence USA announced this week that it will support McAuliffe to the tune of $1 million. The NRA has contributed around $500,000 to oppose McAuliffe.

Despite the back-and-forth, there is little evidence to suggest that Cuccinelli’s performance resurrected his campaign. “The debate changed nothing, which is good for McAuliffe,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “All a late debate does is solidify partisan choices.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, less than two weeks before the Nov. 5 election day, shows McAuliffe with a 46% to 39% advantage over Cuccinelli, with Sarvis at 10%. Only 4% of likely voters are undecided and 7% say there’s a “good chance” they will change their mind, according to the poll. Cuccinelli has to improve in rural Virginia, a Republican bastion where he is currently underperforming.

In his closing statement, Cuccinelli challenged McAuliffe. “Terry’s never told us his plans for Virginia—all he has is platitudes,” said Cuccinelli. “Terry, without mentioning me, I challenge you now, for the first time, to tell us one detailed plan and how you’ll pay for it.”

McAuliffe kept to his script, refusing to mention Cuccinelli, instead spending most of his time describing another candidate for governor with a business background and a moderate streak—former Democratic governor Mark Warner. “I want to govern in that style,” said McAuliffe.

If the polls are credible, McAuliffe likely will get that chance.