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Cuccinelli, McAuliffe bringing battle to stage

Sparks are expected to fly Saturday when Virginia’s two major-party gubernatorial candidates will meet in their first debate.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe have spent the past few months unleashing a daily barrage of accusations and criticisms of each other, usually through campaign emails. At Saturday’s Virginia Bar Association-sponsored debate, they’ll have a chance to grill each other face-to-face.

PBS’ Judy Woodruff will moderate the debate, which starts at 11 a.m. Relatively few will see it in person—it is sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association and held at the remote Homestead resort in the western edge of the state.

But for the first time, PBS has agreed to live-stream the debate online, meaning that anyone dedicated enough to watch a political debate on the Internet on a Saturday morning in July can see how the candidates fare in their first matchup.

Both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe (Libertarian Robert Sarvis isn’t included) are likely to face uncomfortable questions.

For Cuccinelli, those questions will probably be about his involvement with nutritional supplement maker Star Scientific and its CEO, Jonnie Williams. Williams is the man behind the gifts—a Rolex watch, wedding cash—and loans that have Gov. Bob McDonnell facing an investigation, and he has let Cuccinelli use his lake house for vacation.

The current state attorney general is also likely to face questions about his office’s handling of natural gas lawsuits in Southwest Virginia.

McAuliffe, a former national Democratic Party chairman, can expect questions about his involvement with car manufacturing company GreenTech, which hasn’t made very many cars, as well as his other business connections, his unwillingness to publicize his tax returns and his past as a political fundraiser.

“One of the more interesting things of this debate will be the question of money and politics. Neither candidate probably wants to talk about it,” said University of Mary Washington political professor Stephen Farnsworth. “Terry McAuliffe’s career as a Democratic fundraiser and Cuccinelli’s involvement with the Jonnie Williams scandal makes it an unappealing topic for both campaigns.”

The debate format allows Cuccinelli and McAuliffe to ask each other a question directly, something that has been part of previous statewide debates and often leads to interesting moments.

At the VBA debate in last year’s U.S. Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine used his direct questions to press Republican George Allen on his support for a “personhood” bill, while Allen used his to attack Kaine’s tenure as Democratic National Committee chairman. Both proved to be issues the candidates raised repeatedly during the campaign.

Farnsworth said he expects the candidates to also field questions on issues such as uranium mining, energy and transportation funding.

While many statewide races in the past have pitted opponents who had worked with or known each other in some previous political capacity, that’s not the case this time. McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have no personal history, and their disdain for each other seems almost palpable.

Farnsworth said the timing of the VBA debate—in the summer, when few voters are paying close attention—also lets the candidates test out lines of attack and defense.

“These are two flawed candidates, and the challenge is to make sure the other side is seen as more flawed than you are,” he said. “Traditionally the Homestead debate is a low-risk, low-visibility chance to test the campaign messages, test the opponent without a great deal at stake.

“What you say in September and October matters so much more than what you say in July.”

This is one of only two debates agreed to by both candidates. The other is in Fairfax in September.

Typically statewide candidates do at least three debates—Kaine and Allen did four last year, in addition to one the previous December. Cuccinelli has rejected a televised debate in October sponsored by the League of Women Voters, but has been pushing McAuliffe to debate 15 times at different sites around the state. Earlier this week, his campaign proposed seven new debates, at least two in partnership with TV stations.

McAuliffe has said he has accepted five debate invitations from various groups.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028


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