Virginia gubernatorial debate starts ugly, works its way down

(CNN) — The Virginia governor’s race that has become known for its caustic back-and-forth between candidates didn’t disappoint Wednesday, with personal attacks dominating the debate between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

In the second of three debates, this one held in northern Virginia, both candidates launched into personal attacks in their opening statements and never let up.

“Mainstream” was one of the first words uttered by McAuliffe in the debate, part and parcel of his theme trying to paint his opponent as too extreme for a swing state such as Virginia.

“We must embrace the tradition of mainstream solutions,” McAuliffe said.

In his opening, Cuccinelli said that “I’m the only candidate in this race with a lifetime of fighting for Virginians,” continuing his own theme of portraying McAuliffe as inexperienced and naïve in the political arena.

Debate moderator Chuck Todd of NBC pointed out that an estimated 75% of ads in the race have been negative, a charge Cuccinelli essentially ignored as he focused on the number of positive ads he says his campaign has run, highlighting his work as state attorney general.

McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman, painted Cuccinelli’s time in office as anything but spotless. McAuliffe said that Cuccinelli took thousands of dollars in gifts from the CEO of Star Scientific, the pharmaceutical company at the center of a gift-giving controversy with outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Cuccinelli has since given that money to charity.

McAuliffe also called Cuccinelli’s stances on women and gay rights as extreme.

Cuccinelli said that his campaign has earned a “broad array of support” and that the lion’s share of his time has been focused on serving the people of Virginia, not on social issues.

Cuccinelli went after McAuliffe’s deep political connections, which includes a friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and statements McAuliffe has made about the interconnectivity of politics and business.

“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.

Cuccinelli has also attacked McAuliffe for the electric car company he founded that has been caught up in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation over alleged promises of work visas in exchange for foreign investment. McAuliffe has denied any knowledge of the matter, saying he left the company before the allegations took place.

Two new polls released earlier this week show McAuliffe with a single-digit edge over Cuccinelli; in both surveys McAuliffe’s advantage seemed to be fueled by a large lead among female voters.

McAuliffe held a 43%-38% advantage over Cuccinelli among likely voters in an NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis at 8%. And in a Washington Post/Abt-SRBI survey, McAuliffe was at 47%, with Cuccinelli at 39% and Sarvis at 10% among likely voters. McAuliffe’s advantage in both polls was within the surveys’ sampling errors.

Sarvis was left out of Wednesday’s debate.

McAuliffe held an 18-point lead among women voters in the NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll and a 27-point margin in the Washington Post/AbtSRBI survey, with Cuccinelli leading by only 10 points and eight points among men in the two surveys.

The election is in November.

–CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.