Not even puppies and unicorns could escape the mudslinging of Thursday night's Virginia gubernatorial debate, the final sparring match of a heated, nasty campaign.
Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, trailing in the race by most accounts with just 12 days until the election, sought to convince any remaining undecided voters that he's the only candidate with the experience to lead Virginia. Democrat Terry McAuliffe shot back that it's the wrong kind of experience.
If there was any thought that the closing pitch to voters from either candidate would be a positive one, it was gone by the end of the opening remarks. McAuliffe immediately went after Cuccinelli as a divisive, idealogical conservative, while the Republican likened the former Democratic Party chairman to an empty suit from Washington.
Though neither candidate veered far from those themes, McAuliffe, holding a firm, 7-point lead, according to the latest Quinnipiac Poll, was especially safe in his answers. He repeatedly steered questions toward Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding overhaul and the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, two issues he and a majority of Virginians support and Cuccinelli opposes.
Frustrated by the constant dodging, Cuccinelli, who called the Medicaid expansion "welfare, not a jobs program," frequently attempted to goad McAuliffe into more substantive answers.
"I like puppies. But I don't bring a puppy home unless I have a plan for that puppy," Cuccinelli said. "He's all puppy and no plans."
McAuliffe was equally critical of Cuccinelli's economic plan to slash personal and corporate income taxes by eliminating unspecified loopholes. The Democrat said it wasn't doable.
"It's like believing he came here on a unicorn tonight," McAuliffe said.
Virginia Tech, site of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, was a co-host of the debate, sparking a series of questions on gun control. McAuliffe reiterated his support of an assault weapons ban and for universal background checks. Cuccinelli said those steps would not have prevented the 2007 massacre or the shooting last year at a Connecticut elementary school, and instead advocated increased funding for mental health.
Cuccinelli also noted that McAuliffe is the only statewide candidate running for office this year with an "F" rating from the NRA and boasted his perfect "A."
But McAuliffe, who claimed to be a hunter, replied: "I don't care what grade I get from the NRA. As governor, I want to make sure our communities are safe."
While debate moderators didn't ask any questions about the problems facing the Affordable Care Act since the federal exchanges went live, Cuccinelli made it his mission to bring it up often. He noted McAuliffe's preference for a single-payer healthcare system and said Virginians should expect a government-first approach from a Democratic administration in Richmond.
"Send Washington a message and say no to Terry McAuliffe's expanded Obamacare," the Republican said.
Unfazed, McAuliffe continued to paint the attorney general as a Tea Party extremist who has spent his career attacking women's health, homosexuals and climate scientists. The Democrat, who has never held public office, said he would work with Republicans and compared himself to popular former governor and current U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
“Compromise is not a bad word," McAuliffe said. "My opponent will not compromise."
With less than two weeks until Election Day, the campaigns will now shift to get-out-the-vote efforts. Turnout may be a problem for both sides with two polarizing candidates waging such a negative campaign. To that point, "correspondents" from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" attended Thursday's debate to prepare a segment that will reportedly poke fun at how unlikeable the options are.
Cuccinelli has spent recent days with high-profile Republicans like Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Pat McCrory of North Carolina as he seeks to rally voters.
To help drive up energy for his campaign, McAuliffe will campaign this weekend with President Bill Clinton, a close friend.