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Candidates take the gloves off

Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli square off in a televised debate Wednesday night. / AP photo

McLEAN—Two of Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates faced off in a fast-paced and ferocious debate Wednesday night, using nearly every answer to jab the other on questions of social issues, business and governmental experience, and fitness for office.

The debate, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and televised by NBC stations around the state, was the second of three scheduled.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton White House insider, sought to position himself as the pro-business moderate in the race, repeatedly invoking the name of popular Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner, who was a moderate governor.

“My opponent talks a lot about experience, but his experience has been in dividing people, by pursuing his own ideological agenda, introducing legislation that would outlaw most common forms of birth control and bullying the Board of Health, which resulted in the shutting down of some women’s health centers,” McAuliffe said. “Frankly, I think Virginia women have had just about enough of Ken Cuccinelli’s experience.”

Independent polling over the past week showed McAuliffe enjoying a lead of 20 or more percentage points over Cuccinelli among female voters.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli focused on his eight years of experience as a state senator and four years as attorney general and said he would emphasize economic issues. He repeatedly referred to his endorsements from the Northern Virginia Technology Council PAC and the National Federation of Independent Business.

He said McAuliffe, who has not held elected office, knows little about how Virginia government works, and painted him as a political wheeler-dealer.

“If Terry’s elected governor, we’re going to have to change the state motto from ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ to ‘Quid Pro Quo,’” Cuccinelli said. “Governor is not a good entry-level job. But that’s what it would be for Terry.”

A third-party candidate, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, was not invited to participate in the debate.

He did attend, and told reporters afterward that it was “a very negative debate, fairly empty of solutions.”

NBC News political director Chuck Todd, the moderator, and a panel of three other journalists pressed McAuliffe and Cuccinelli for specifics on their proposals: McAuliffe to say exactly how much his various plans would cost, and Cuccinelli to say exactly what state tax credits and exemptions he would eliminate.

Cuccinelli said in the debate he’d eliminate 15 percent of the tax loopholes and cap state budget growth at 3.5 percent.

Cuccinelli did not go further in committing to eliminating specific tax exemptions, and later told reporters that it would take his first year in office to analyze all the tax credits to pinpoint which should be eliminated.

McAuliffe did not directly answer the question of costs either, saying his proposals rely upon the state expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act, something state lawmakers so far have declined to do. If they did, McAuliffe said, it could free up to $500 million in state dollars that could then be spent on other priorities.

“If we don’t get the Medicaid expansion, we can’t bring in the efficiencies, then I agree with you. There’s not money to be spent,” McAuliffe said.

Both men were asked about whether the recent shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. indicate a need for stricter gun regulations.

McAuliffe said he favors universal background checks for all gun purchases.

“How many people have to be killed until we wake up to have sensible gun ownership?” he said.

Cuccinelli said he thinks the focus should be on better treatment for mentally ill people.

Both candidates evaded touchy questions. Cuccinelli sidestepped a question about why Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams would give him $18,000 worth of trips and gifts, saying that he had taken the initiative to revise disclosure statements that omitted some of those gifts and that at the time, “what was going on there didn’t seem like a big deal.”

McAuliffe, asked why he hasn’t released his tax returns as Cuccinelli has done and has pushed him to do, said he’s done more than what’s legally required, then quickly turned back to criticizing Cuccinelli for the Star Scientific gifts.

They did agree on one thing: Neither candidate would take a position on whether the Washington Redskins’ name is offensive and should be changed.

Both said that’s the team’s decision.

The two will face off again in late October at a debate at Virginia Tech.

Sarvis may take part in that one. He said the sponsors have indicated he could be invited if he polls at 10 percent.

Associated Press political writer Bob Lewis contributed to this story.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028