ROANOKE, Va. - Democratic and Republican gubernatorial rivals, Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, respectively, are hoping to make headway with voters by tying their opponent to unpopular Washington, D.C. issues during their third and final debate Thursday night.
McAuliffe, a businessman and former head of the Democratic National Committee, currently leads Cuccinelli, the conservative Virginia attorney general, in recent polling by about 7 percentage points. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis earns 10 percent support, making his presence in the race a potential spoiler for Cuccinelli - but because of rules previously agreed upon by the two major party candidates, Sarvis is not allowed to participate in the debate.
Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are expected to bring their sharpest canned one-liners as they round the final campaign turn and head into Election Day on Nov. 5.
With the recent 16-day federal government shutdown serving as an example, McAuliffe hopes to paint Cuccinelli as just another tea party Republican driven more by political philosophy than a desire to effectively govern. Polls have shown Republicans taking a hit with the public for their role in the shutdown, though voters say they are largely disappointed with both parties.
But with the failed launch of the website key to implementing the Affordable Care Act dominating media coverage, Cuccinelli also has something to throw at McAuliffe, who was a major Democratic fundraiser before becoming a candidate himself. Cuccinelli was the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy, claiming it is unconstitutional. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court let the core of the law stand, Cuccinelli now is eager to claim credit for having the foresight to oppose the legislation.
While both sides have flooded the airwaves with advertising, McAuliffe is outspending Cuccinelli by a 2-1 margin on television, according to news reports. Former secretary of state and former Sen. Hillary Clinton took to the campaign trail for McAuliffe last weekend and former President Bill Clinton will headline for him this weekend. But still, there's concern among Democrats that despite his polling lead, the lukewarm feeling McAuliffe engenders from the public could lay the groundwork for an upset by Cuccinelli, who is relying on a motivated conservative base to maximize turnout.
So Cuccinelli has much to gain with a positive performance in the Thursday night debate, while McAuliffe has much to lose.