Ken Cuccinelli, Terry McAuliffe shift away from attack mode to attract voters

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

April came in as a nasty and negative month in the Virginia governor's race, but it's going out with both candidates shifting from attack mode long enough to introduce themselves to voters and to assure Virginians that they're prepared to govern.

Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will air the first television ad of the race Monday, a 30-second spot featuring his wife, Teiro Cuccinelli, trumpeting her husband's fight against child sex offenders and human traffickers. She makes no mention of Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, intends to spend May rolling out a series of policy agendas that, according to Democratic sources, will focus the race on kitchen-table issues like education to assure voters of the candidate's bona fides.

Cuccinelli and McAuliffe's newfound positivity is in stark contrast to the way the race has developed so far. Cuccinelli's campaign for weeks has been pounding McAuliffe over his failure to meet self-declared production goals at GreenTech Automotive, a Mississippi electric-car manufacturer he started. McAuliffe responded by blasting Cuccinelli for his financial ties to Star Scientific, a Virginia supplement-maker battling the state in court over unpaid taxes.

The attacks, of course, will not just disappear. Cuccinelli just last week told reporters that he had failed to disclose an additional $5,000 in gifts he received from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams over the past three years, a revelation state Democrats called "an embarrassment to Virginians."

But in a race in which few voters know the candidates, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli clearly feel the need to define themselves for Virginians and present their credentials for the job, said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist.

"A lot of the discussion has been why neither one would be a good governor rather than why either one would be," Ayres said. "If [Republican presidential candidate] Mitt Romney spent more time building a positive case for himself, he wouldn't have been so vulnerable to the attacks."

Having never held public office, McAuliffe also has to convince voters that he understands the issues facing the state, something on which he'll focus in coming weeks.

"It's important for him to start rolling out policy positions," said former state Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran. "Because you don't want the campaign to go too negative too fast, and it's important for Terry to distinguish himself on these issues."

As they continue defending their records, both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are trying to emerge as the more ethical candidate. In an unprecedented move, Cuccinelli made public eight years of full tax returns, while McAuliffe vowed to refuse any gift worth more than $100 as governor.

It's a start, but they have a long way to go, said former state GOP Chairman Pat McSweeney.

"Some people have won on the weakness of their opponents," McSweeney said. "But that's a heck of a way to win and a heck of a way to start your term as governor."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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