It was something that was rather surprising to me.
Yes, it’s still mid-July -- perhaps the peak of the silly season for politics -- but what happened on the tony Homestead's debate stage in Hot Springs may play out to make a difference in the outcome of the race. But first, here’s what happened at the debate before the Virginia Bar Association audience, if you only focus on what was said.
Essentially, both candidates stuck to their scripts, so there weren‘t many surprises in the content of what they said. No, the surprise for me was all in how they said it; the difference in the body language and demeanor of the two candidates was striking.
As far as what was said, here it is in a nutshell: The Republican candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly said that his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, is a Washington insider (read that as saying he's not a true Virginian). McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, repeatedly cast Cuccinelli as an ideologue who is backward on social issues (read that as saying he will keep new businesses from locating in Virginia).
In the first half of the Judy Woodruff-moderated debate Cuccinelli seemed in over his head. He appeared to be scared and unsure of himself. At the same time, McAuliffe hit the ground running, brimming over with confidence. He was well prepared and it showed.
Among the topics covered were:
- Teachers’ pay.
- A $1.4 billion tax cut proposed by Cuccinelli, about which he refuses to divulge any specifics.
- Same-sex marriage
- McAuliffe’s car company failings
- Transportation in Virginia
- Gifts from Star Scientific
- Should Gov. Bob McDonnell resign?
- Health care/Obamacare
- The Sequester’s impact on Virginia
- Immigration Reform
When Cuccinelli did manage to recover somewhat from his shaky start, in the debate’s last half-hour, he tried to affect his cock-of-the walk style. However, it seemed a little forced and he still looked self-conscious. Which all seemed to underline the notion that Cuccinelli’s style works much better when he’s working a highly partisan crowd, or being interviewed by sympathetic questioners.
McAuliffe chided Cuccinelli for accepting a trip to New York, paid for by Jonnie Williams, when the attorney general’s office was dragging its heels on a tax dispute between one of Williams' companies and the commonwealth. Cuccinelli said he was merely standing in for Gov. McDonnell, at the governor‘s request.
McAuliffe mentioned a $1,500 turkey dinner the AG presumably enjoyed, for which Williams picked up the check. Then the Democratic candidate chuckled, “That’s a lot of turkey!”
Yes, it was surprising to me how much better McAuliffe performed in this first debate. He seemed likeable and quick on his feet. Up until today, I had been more than a little worried than Cuccinelli would be the more confident debater. Now I wonder if Cuccinelli ought to just avoid any future one-on-one debates.
McAuliffe's biggest stumble was caught by PolitiFact. McAuliffe said a report on connections between Uncle Jonnie and Cuccinelli, issued by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, said Cuccinelli should have been prosecuted. It did not.
Of course one debate shown on PBS in July won’t settle the contest. But with McAuliffe slightly ahead in the early polls and his strong performance on Saturday, momentum is now clearly on his side.
For his part, Cuccinelli tried to distance himself from McDonnell’s snowballing Uncle Jonnie problem, but it wasn’t convincing. When questioned about abortion Cuccinelli mostly ducked the opportunity to double-down on his anti-choice, anti-contraception positions of the past.
So, here’s why this first debate matters -- of course, it’s the money. Cuccinelli is probably going to have more trouble raising money now. Some of the GOP’s fat cats may already smell a loser. Smart Republicans may son decide to invest their time and money into holding onto the AG’s job and maintaining control of the House of Delegates.
So, even though this is just July, Cuccinelli may already be in trouble. If he can’t raise enough money to saturate Virginia with commercials in the fall, AND he can’t best McAuliffe in debates, he’s probably going to lose in November by double digits. Like McDonnell is expected to do, he could end up hurting other Republicans in their own races.
For the first time this year, I see McAuliffe’s chances to overcome Cuccinelli’s advantage of his well-cultivated right-wing media darling image as being pretty good.
All in all, July 20, 2013, was a good day for Virginia Democrats -- especially for the most relentless of the Cooch Watch activists.
Update: To watch a recording of the debate click here.