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Governor candidates clash in contentious debate

Two of Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates faced off in a fast-paced and ferocious debate tonight, 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 in this race.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe emphasized his own business experience, saying he wants to govern in a bipartisan manner and be inclusive. He frequently criticized Cuccinelli for his conservative position on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

“I think it’s important to have someone in the governor’s office who has those business experiences, understands the ups and downs of businesses, understands that risk is inherent in our economy, and is willing to put everything in to make sure we grow and diversify our economy,” McAuliffe said. “My opponent has spent most of his career on a social ideological agenda.”

Republican Ken Cuccinelli focused on his experience in government — he’s been a state senator and is the current state 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.”

Had he participated, Sarvis said, “it would have been a more substantive and more positive debate.”

Moderator Chuck Todd and a panel of three 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 has vowed to eliminate tax exemptions that no longer live up to their original promise to stimulate an economic sector or create jobs. He said in the debate he’d eliminate 15 percent of the loopholes and cap state budget growth at 3 and a half 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.

“The standard of eliminating one is what’s critical here,” he said in the debate. “If all we’re doing is giving money to a business interest, that’s not something that’s working for the people paying for it, which is the taxpayers of Virginia.”

McAuliffe, too, did not directly answer the question of costs, saying that his proposals rely upon the state expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act, which state lawmakers have so far declined to do. If they did, McAuliffe said, it could free up to $500 million in state dollars that then could 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. “So I think it’s prudent budgeting first to determine how much money you have. Then when you have it, then you can apply it to your


McAuliffe also criticized Cuccinelli’s tax credit elimination plan, saying it would take billions of dollars out of state coffers that are needed for education and other programs.

Cuccinelli responded that that answer demonstrated McAuliffe’s inexperience in government.

“It’s hard to find inefficiencies in a government you don’t understand. And Terry McAuliffe doesn’t know how Virginia government works,” Cuccinelli said. “He doesn’t understand the issues related to Virginia government. He can talk at this topline level like anybody could if they read a few talking points. But he doesn’t know how Virginia government works.”

Cuccinelli opposes the Medicaid eligibility expansion that McAuliffe favors. At one point he said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate last year, had told him the federal government can’t afford to keep its promise to pay most of the cost of the expansion. Cuccinelli said he favors reforms to the program.

He said McAuliffe has vowed to hold the state’s budget hostage to Medicaid expansion, something Cuccinelli likened to Washington-style politics.

McAuliffe softened his previous stance on that, saying that “no budget will be shut down in Virginia over the Medicaid expansion.”

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.

“The more common tragedy in mental illness is day to day, one person at a time, that you don’t read about in the paper. It’s a suicide, it’s a family struggling and they’re at their wits end struggling and they’re at their wits’ end to try and get one of their family members on a path to recovery,” he said. “We have not found gun control to be effective in that area … I will continue to focus where I believe the main source of this problem to be, and that is mental health issues.”

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.

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.

The two men differed on whether Virginia should let local school divisions choose whether to start the school year before Labor Day. State law says they cannot, a statute known colloquially as the King’s Dominion law, since it means summer tourist spots don’t lose teen workers before Labor Day. Some school districts have exemptions but many do not.

McAuliffe said he doesn’t support legislation to change the law.

“The tourism business is too important,” he said.

Cuccinelli disagreed.

They did agree on one thing — neither man 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 be in that one — he said the sponsors have indicated he could be invited if he polls at 10 percent.