The landscape of the Virginia gubernatorial race is left virtually unchanged following the first debate between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe Saturday. The two rivals sparred over familiar issues, including differences regarding a transportation deal, tax cuts and social issues.
And while blows were exchanged, they echoed the themes already outlined by the campaigns getting played out in television advertisements and press releases – Cuccinelli called McAuliffe, a longtime national Democratic fundraiser, someone who is willing to say anything to raise money or get elected, and McAuliffe painted Cuccinelli as out-of-touch with most Virginians on social issues.
"This mentality that I will promise you anything to get elected fits in Washington, if just won't fit in Virginia," said Cuccinelli of McAuliffe at the Virginia Bar Association debate in Hot Springs, Va.
Neither man is well-loved by the public and the voters have also remained largely disengaged thus far in the race, thanks to summertime distractions and 2012 election fatigue, experts say.
But McAuliffe's knocks against Cuccinelli for alienating business leaders because of his so-called extreme views on abortion and gay rights gained legitimacy with a story by Bloomberg News Monday, which highlighted a core of donors to current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, who have withheld support for Cuccinelli.
One top Republican fundraiser confirmed that top GOP donors are resisting giving to Cuccinelli because they fear his extreme social positions and aren't confident in his ability to focus on the economy.
When McAuliffe recounted an event they both recently attended where some business leaders started laughing after Cuccinelli claimed he is not extreme on social issues, Cuccinelli replied, "Four people in the front thought that was real funny."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, gave the edge to McAuliffe, but mostly because the expectations for the over-the-top businessman were so low.
"Both candidates scored points, took hits, rattle off memorized sound bites," he said on Twitter just following the debate's conclusion. "With almost no one watching, not 100 votes were changed."
Sabato called it an "exceptionally negative debate" but added that it was inevitable, because the candidates flaws are arguably more obvious than their virtues.
In another notable exchange, McAuliffe knocked Cuccinelli for gifts and favors he received from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams, the same businessman who's relationship with McDonnell has prompted state and federal investigations.
"I made several mistakes on disclosure and who brought them forward? I did. No one was going to find them," Cuccinelli said in response. "Does anyone in this room think Terry McAuliffe would have done that?"
McAuliffe said the Williams situation highlighted the lax nature of Virginia's gift laws and – as he has done before – pressed Cuccinelli to agree to a $100 gift ban for politicians.
"Never was anything requested of me by Jonnie and they never got anything," Cuccinelli said. "I have said I would support any gift cap or ban that the general assembly would agree to."
A recent polling average show the two men virtually tied, with McAuliffe at 40 percent and Cuccinelli at 39 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.com. McAuliffe, meanwhile, is still out-raising Cuccinelli at nearly a 2 to 1 clip, something that will be increasingly consequential as advertising ramps up ahead of the November contest.