From the opening bell of their first debate Saturday, Republican Ken Cuccinelli went after Democrat Terry McAuliffe as a Washington insider lacking the credentials to be Virginia's next governor, while McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli's past record of social crusades and opposition to bipartisan compromise.
Against the backdrop of an already nasty and spirited contest, Saturday's debate in front of the state's bar assocation was business as usual. But with a looming state scandal brewing that is dangerously close to Cuccinelli and a tough road for the inexperienced McAuliffe to convince voters he's up to the job, the 90-minute sparring match shed light on how the two campaigns will frame the nation's most closely watched race of the year.
Cuccinelli hammered McAuliffe repeatedly for choosing Mississippi as the production center for his electric car company, GreenTech Automotive, insisting it was further evidence of the Democrat's shallow loyalty to Virginia.
"The only person who has abandoned, driven business out of Virginia is you, Terry," Cuccinelli said. "It certainly isn't me. Instead of putting Virginia first, [you] put Terry first."
But Cuccinelli also faced tough questioning from moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS over his ties to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, a Virginia businessman at the center of an ongoing federal investigation into Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration. McAuliffe tried to fan the flames of suspicion about Cuccinelli, who owned stock in the Henrico-based company and accepted thousands of dollars worth of trips and an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner from Williams.
Cuccinelli attempted to explain away the relationship, but McAuliffe insisted there was a "quid pro quo" between Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, and Star Scientific, which had sued the state over unpaid taxes.
"Instead of taking him to court, he was taking you to New York City," McAuliffe said. "He was buying you $1,500 turkey dinners. You know, that's a lot of turkey."
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, continued to paint Cuccinelli as a ideological extremist while often drawing comparisons between himself and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican and Cuccinelli foe, as well as Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat that appreciates high popularity marks in Virginia.
Cuccinelli, who called homosexuality a "personal challenge" and said he did "not expect to use the political capital of the governor's office" to fight for anti-abortion measures, shot back that the attack on his pro-life views "isn't debating, it's demonizing."
"I'm not demonizing Republicans," McAuliffe responded, and rattled off a list of Republicans who support his campaign.
McAuliffe also insisted that Cuccinelli drove businesses out of the state when he battled against a University of Virginia professor's climate research and made comments critical of homosexuals.
Cuccinelli replied by aggressively wagging his finger at McAuliffe. "The only candidate in this race that has chased business out of Virginia is you."
On economic issues, the gubernatorial hopefuls exchanged shots over Cuccinelli's plan to cut taxes by $1.4 billion. McAuliffe said the lost revenue would threaten education, while Cuccinelli said he could make up for it by closing tax code loopholes.
Cuccinelli and Republicans were quick to claim victory after the debate, while McAuliffe's backers issued statements touting the Democrat's vision for the state and eviscerating Cuccinelli's views on social issues without declaring outright victory. Prior to the forum, Democrats sought to downplay the outcome of the debate, noting Cuccinelli's experience and skill in the ring.
It's a indication of what the two campaigns came into Saturday looking to accomplish. Cuccinelli hoped to score big points by showing up McAuliffe and painting the career fundraiser as an inexperienced outsider. McAuliffe, meanwhile sought to appear gubernatorial, something more than a hold-your-nose alternative to the conservative Republican nominee.
The realities of the state's political climate, however, make it difficult for Cuccinelli. McDonnell's scandal creates new headlines almost daily and political prognosticators say that will continue to take a toll on Cuccinelli unless McAuliffe's campaign somehow implodes.
"I give edge to McAuliffe because there's no way for Cuccinelli to win with current scandal headlines," tweeted Virginia-based political guru Larry Sabato.