BLACKSBURG, Va. - Gun control, the economy and education took center stage during the third and final debate between gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican and Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, at the Virginia Tech University campus Thursday night.
But what the night will likely most be remembered for is puppies.
“These are platitudes, not plans,” Cuccinelli said of McAuliffe’s answers. “I like education, I like puppies. But I don’t bring a puppy home if I don’t have a plan for how to deal with that puppy. And he’s all puppy and no plan.”
It was a line that got laughs in the press room and maybe in the homes of Virginians, but it wasn’t likely a cutting enough blow to change the state of the race, which McAuliffe currently leads by about 7 percent over Cuccinelli. Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis, who is polling at about 10 percent total, was not permitted to participate in the debate.
It’s clear that the economy and education were the top issues Virginians care about and both major party candidates were prepared to discuss. But thanks to the location of the debate, on the campus where a student killed 32 people and injured 17 in 2007, gun control was also a central issue.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, stood by his support for universal background checks, something wildly unpopular in the deep red, rural part of the state. But he also stated his support of 2nd Amendment rights and claimed to be a gun owner and hunter.
“I don’t care what rating I got from the [National Rifle Association]; I want to keep Virginias safe,” McAuliffe said.
Cuccinelli, Virginia’s current attorney general, countered that none of the gun control policies proffered by McAuliffe would have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre, but said he’s been a long-time proponent for improving mental health care.
“We need to do more in that direction,” he said. “I am a strong advocate for supporting our current gun laws.”
At another juncture when asked whether it was good for Virginians that Sarvis was not allowed to participate, Cuccinelli described himself as “the strongest pro-liberty candidate ever elected in Virginia in my lifetime.”
Both men accused the other of offering agendas without offering concrete details for how they would fund things. Cuccinelli claimed McAuliffe was using his support for Medicaid expansion funded by the federal government as a catch-all “money tree” and McAuliffe said Cuccinelli’s tax cut plan would raid public education spending.
As predicted, each also tried to tie the other to unpopular Washington policies associated with their parties. McAuliffe accused Cuccinelli of putting party ideology before pragmatism, akin to Washington Republicans who recently pushed for a federal government shutdown. Cuccinelli sought to take advantage of the current bad news about the messy website roll-out for the Affordable Care Act, by reminding Virginians McAuliffe had said he didn’t think the law went far enough.
In the end, voters were left with the same picture each side has been painting for months via a suffocating media advertising onslaught - McAuliffe as a carpetbagging, Democratic Party hack out for himself and Cuccinelli is a social conservative who is anti-woman and a skeptic of science. Neither candidate broke the mold in their final showing. From here until Election Day on Nov. 5, the key will be getting their voters to bother to show up to the polls despite neither candidate engendering much likeability.