Democrats went to great lengths to play down expectations for gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe's first debate this past Saturday with his Republican opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli, who presents his unabashedly conservative politics with the practiced calm of a courtroom litigator and a measure of charm, had more than a decade of experience as a state senator before becoming the attorney general, the Democratic Governors Association noted in a memo last week.
"... Cuccinelli has participated in numerous debates and, by all accounts, performed extraordinary well. Terry McAuliffe, on the other hand, has spent his career as a businessman and has limited debate experience,'' DGA Communications Director Danny Kanner wrote.
On Saturday, McAuliffe at least held his own before a crowd of Virginia lawyers in the normally somnolent midsummer debate. He charged confidently after Cuccinelli, landing rhetorical punches and drawing a warm crowd response at times.
But in the midst of a flurry when McAuliffe seemed to score his best points, he misstated the findings of an investigative report.
For example, he asserted that a report last week said Cuccinelli should have been prosecuted for lapses of several years in reporting personal gifts from Jonnie Williams and his company, Star Scientific. In fact, the report said Cuccinelli broke no law.
"Let's be clear about the report that just came out,'' McAuliffe said, referring to eight pages of findings by Richmond's Democratic commonwealth's attorney, Mike Herring.
"If you read the whole report, which I have done, it says in here that the attorney general should have been prosecuted, but the Virginia disclosure laws are insufficient,'' McAuliffe said, pausing occasionally for dramatic effect.
The report, however, said Cuccinelli didn't run afoul of the law.
"Our investigation finds no evidence that the Attorney General in any way promoted, supported or assisted Star Scientific while he had a financial interest in the company,'' the report says. "Although one cannot help but question whether repeated omissions of gifts from Williams are coincidence or a pattern reflecting intent to conceal, the disclosure of several other gifts and benefits from Williams in his original statements suggests that the Attorney General was not attempting to conceal his relationship. Furthermore, we find no evidence that in his statements the AG intentionally mischaracterized gifts and benefits from Star Scientific and Williams.''
Still, McAuliffe doubled down on it when asked in a post-debate scrum with reporters to validate his claim on Herring's report.
'Well, see he could have been prosecuted if we had different disclosure ...'' McAuliffe said before a reporter cut in, asking him to find it in the report.
"Well, that was our analysis of the report,'' he said. Later he added, "The way I interpreted the reading of it, he could have been prosecuted if we had tougher disclosure laws in Virginia, which is why I'm arguing for tougher disclosure laws.''
Cuccinelli also had moments when his answers were open to argument. When PBS news anchor Judy Woodruff asked Cuccinelli if, as governor, he would target some forms of contraception, "as you did several years ago.'' Cuccinelli denied it. But he was a Senate co-sponsor in 2007 of House Bill 2797, which would have applied the full legal rights of living, breathing persons to embryos from the moment of fertilization. Some forms of oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices that prevent pregnancy by keeping fertilized embryos from implanting themselves into the uterine wall could have become illegal.
The debate wasn't the first time that McAuliffe - a former Democratic National Committee chairman and prime fundraiser for the Clintons - has made statements that the record doesn't support.
Last fall, he told reporters that electric-car maker GreenTech Automotive located its first U.S. plant in Mississippi while he was its chairman because Virginia wasn't interested in it. Emails obtained by the Associated Press, however, showed consistent efforts by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership under Democratic and Republican governors to help the company find a Virginia site, despite officials' misgivings about the company's financing.
McAuliffe holds a narrow lead in polls. But former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, said McAuliffe could run into trouble if he gets caught off-base too often.
"Some things you just can't get wrong,'' Wilder said. "How can his handlers allow him to go forward like that? Goodness gracious.''