HOT SPRINGS -- Gubernatorial hopefuls Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli battled in their first debate Saturday, pushing their competing philosophies as job creators between attacks on topics ranging from social issues to the ongoing gifts scandal involving Star Scientific and CEO Jonnie Williams Sr.
The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association and held at the landmark Omni Homestead Resort in western Virginia, played out before a crowded ballroom full of lawyers, but was broadcast live online, giving Virginians their first opportunity to see the candidates in a close encounter outside of their political commercials and spin doctors.
Recent nonpartisan polls have tilted the race just outside the margin of error toward McAuliffe, who is seeking to become the first governor since 1969 to be elected in Virginia while his party occupies the White House. But with nearly $17 million raised and less than four months to go before Election Day, the mountain air did little to cool off the hotly contested race.
Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general, and McAuliffe, a McLean businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, disagreed on just about every issue, including abortion, gay marriage, taxes, transportation and health care.
The 90-minute debate was marked by rhetorical incursions launched by both men on what they perceived to be their opponent's greatest weakness, all centered on a theme that the other guy cannot be trusted.
"This is more of Terry McAuliffe saying whatever he thinks he has to say to get elected," said Cuccinelli, referring to McAuliffe's proposal to raise teacher pay. "It's pure flim-flammery."
McAuliffe countered later with a jab suggesting Cuccinelli campaigned for the state Senate in Fairfax on transportation so he could oppose abortion rights once he got elected.
"You come in pretending to be one thing and then you say something else," McAuliffe said, calling Cuccinelli the "true Trojan horse of Virginia politics."
McAuliffe, who unsuccessfully sought the gubernatorial nomination four years ago, has been ripped by Republicans as a Beltway insider and inexperienced Virginia government interloper whose recent attempts at economic development in the state have fallen short of his promises.
Cuccinelli, a lawyer and former two-term senator from Fairfax, has been decried by Democrats as an extremist who opposed a recent transportation compromise and will push a socially conservative agenda that is hostile to women and gays on such issues as abortion and marriage equality.
Both candidates returned to those attack points throughout the debate, often extending the time allotted for the questions posed by Judy Woodruff, the PBS NewsHour anchor who moderated.
Asked about gay marriage, McAuliffe said he supported equality and would sign a bill giving gays the right to marry in Virginia if it ever got to his desk. Then he pivoted on Cuccinelli, saying the attorney general had "continually attacked gay Virginians," referencing the attorney general's remarks on gay lifestyle, and his letter to colleges and universities instructing them to remove sexual orientation from their anti-discrimination language.
"There are consequences to mean-spirited, hateful comments," McAuliffe said, after suggesting that Cuccinelli's position on gay issues and abortion nearly jeopardized Northrop Grumman from locating its corporate headquarters in the state.
Cuccinelli said his views on homosexuality or gay marriage had not changed, but he was ready for the attack.
"The notion that because I believe marriage ought to be protected, because I believe life begins at conception ... there are lots of Virginians, millions perhaps, who share my sincerely held beliefs. And your notion that this somehow chases business out of Virginia would be laughable if it weren't so offensive," he said.
Cuccinelli then went on the attack, hitting McAuliffe on his decision to bypass Virginia and locate his sputtering electric car business, GreenTech Automotive, in Mississippi rather than job-starved Southwest Virginia.
"You picked Mississippi, so run for governor of Mississippi," Cuccinelli quipped.
"The only candidate in this race who is chasing business out of Virginia is you -- it's Terry -- not me," Cuccinelli said, his voice rising as he turned toward McAuliffe. "You walked right over the people of Martinsville on your way to Mississippi. ... Instead of putting Virginia first, you put Terry first."
McAuliffe returned fire later by turning a question over his promises to create jobs with GreenTech and a slowly developing proposed wood pellet plant in Southside Virginia into a broadside on Cuccinelli's relationship with Williams.
The attorney general received a flight to New York from the deep-pocketed Star Scientific CEO and solicited a vacation and Thanksgiving dinner stay at Williams' lake house that he initially failed to disclose, in addition to stock holdings in the company, which manufactures the dietary supplement Anatabloc.
Williams' gifts to Gov. Bob McDonnell are the subject of ongoing state and federal investigations.
McAuliffe said he had a fiduciary duty to protect his shareholders and that Cuccinelli had a responsibility to taxpayers that he shirked.
"You forgot, Ken, when you were taking all these gifts from Jonnie Williams and Star Scientific ... you had a fiduciary duty to protect the citizens of Virginia to get back $1.7 million that was owed us," McAuliffe said, referring to a lawsuit filed against the state by Star challenging a long-running dispute over a tax assessment on its barns in Mecklenburg County.
"Instead of taking him to court, he was taking you to New York City. He was giving you a mountain lake resort, he was buying you $1,500 turkey dinners. You know, that's a lot of turkey."
Cuccinelli said he first met Williams on Star's private jet in December 2009 when he took McDonnell's place at an appearance in New York. Earlier this year, the attorney general amended his disclosures to reflect the gifts from Williams and asked Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring to review his disclosures. Herring's review, completed Wednesday, found no evidence that Cuccinelli violated the state's disclosure laws.
The two clashed over the report. McAuliffe said the report asserted that Cuccinelli should have been prosecuted but that Virginia laws were insufficient. Cuccinelli called that "absolutely wrong."
The two also cautiously addressed whether McDonnell should consider resigning over the current gifts investigation, in which authorities are trying to determine whether the governor properly disclosed gifts he received from Williams and if Star received any benefit from the gifts provided to the governor and his family. The governor has denied any wrongdoing in his disclosure reports or that favors were performed for Williams, whom he considers a personal friend.
"While that question is appropriate to ask Governor McDonnell and it is appropriate to ask him to think about that, I don't think it is appropriate to ask the sitting attorney general to address it when I started one of the investigations," Cuccinelli said.
"Only Governor McDonnell knows the facts," McAuliffe said. "We have an investigation going on -- let's get the facts out. ... I'd agree with the attorney general that he should consider it. ... Let's let the investigations go and not pre-judge the investigations."
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