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Cuccinelli, McAuliffe to meet in face-to-face debate

If you have a TV or an Internet connection, you could hardly have missed the ads in Virginia’s gubernatorial race this fall.

But you’ve got another chance—possibly a more informative one—to see Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli on television.

The two will face off in their second debate, this one sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. In a departure from past years of the Fairfax debate, this one will be held in prime time, 7–8 p.m. Wednesday and aired live on NBC–4 out of Washington. Other NBC affiliates in the state may also carry the debate, and it will live stream on

NBC News national political director Chuck Todd will moderate.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who got 7 percent of the vote in a poll last week by Quinnipiac University, was not invited to participate.

The debate is a rare face-to-face event with the two major-party candidates, who more typically have been appearing separately at forums around the state.

Voters may feel they’ve seen a lot of the two men, since spending on TV advertising in this race is already in the multimillions of dollars, and it’s not even October yet.

But many of those ads—from the campaigns themselves and from outside groups—have focused on personality issues, accusations that one or the other candidate is unreliable, unethical or unfit to be governor.

The debate is their chance to focus more on policy.

“The next debate this year is probably more important than the average debate because the campaign discourse so far has been almost entirely about personal attacks,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Both campaigns, it seems to me, have made a mistake in focusing so much on what’s wrong with the other guy. This will be an opportunity to change the conversation, at least for 90 minutes, in the direction of issues.”

Cuccinelli, questioned after a recent forum in Richmond, said he hopes the debate will lend “a little more personal feel” to the campaign.

“Everyone complains about TV ads, and that’s not how we want to be communicating to people,” he said.

The debate will be a chance “for people to see us more or less unfiltered,” Cuccinelli added. “I hope people tune in, at least get some unfiltered sense of who we are.”

Cuccinelli’s campaign has spent more than $3 million on TV and radio ads, according to the Virginia Public Access Project’s analysis of campaign finance filings. McAuliffe’s has spent $4.8 million in the same category. Neither amount accounts for the money spent by outside groups.

Candidates typically prepare extensively for debates. But, Farnsworth said, debates can provide that “unfiltered” sense of a candidate, good or bad. He pointed to President Barack Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate of last year’s presidential race.

“These debates can really have powerful impacts. Think about the sleepwalking performance that Barack Obama gave in the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney last year,” Farnsworth said. “That first debate really shook up that race. Obama recovered in subsequent debates but his poor performance in the first debate really speaks to how the campaign can be shaken up by a poor performance.”

Both candidates need to counter some of the negative attacks coming from their opponent on points of weakness.

For example, Farnsworth said the most compelling attack on McAuliffe is “the question of what he has actually done.”

While McAuliffe touts his record of business dealings, Cuccinelli’s camp has hounded him for unmet job-creation promises and connections to companies that failed or had questionable dealings.

“I think the McAuliffe campaign would be well advised to make a more compelling case for his professional career, his business experience and how that can help make him a better governor,” Farnsworth said.

Cuccinelli, Farnsworth said, needs to make a more effective appeal to moderates. His conservative credentials, particularly on social issues, mean he has fairly solid support among conservative Republicans, but McAuliffe’s campaign has criticized him for those same positions on abortion and women’s health issues, and same-sex marriage.

Swing voters in Northern Virginia, particularly, aren’t going to be swayed by the social conservative agenda, Farnsworth said.

“The polls show that Cuccinelli does poorly with those swing voters who decide these elections, and it seems to me that the Cuccinelli campaign really needs to be more effective in reaching out to moderate voters The Republican Party is at great risk of seeing Northern Virginia slip further and further away, and with it the state in a statewide election.”

So if you tune into Wednesday night’s debate, will you see two men sticking to carefully rehearsed, policy-oriented talking points? Or will it be a repeat of the finger-pointing slugfest that was the campaign’s first debate, at The Homestead in July?

Hard to say, Farnsworth said, pointing out that Cuccinelli and McAuliffe “clearly dislike each other intensely.”

“Even if the campaigns decide that they intend to be more issue-focused, it may be tough to stay on track given all that each side has said about the other,” he said.

This isn’t the last chance voters will have to see the two men debate. The Associated Press says both campaigns have agreed to a third debate Oct. 24 in Blacksburg, hosted jointly by WDBJ–7 and Virginia Tech.

It’s not clear if Sarvis is invited to participate in that debate.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028