The two leading candidates in Virginia's gubernatorial race faced off Wednesday night in a debate in Fairfax County.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli pushed his knowledge of Virginia's government in a debate Wednesday that, at times, left his Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Terry McAuliffe, without answers or changing the subject.
And Cuccinelli found himself furiously rejecting McAuliffe claims that his actions against gay rights as attorney general had almost driven business from Virginia and that he had put wealthy benefactors and campaign contributors ahead of Virginia taxpayers.
The first prime-time television debate in Virginia's 2013 governor's race provoked overstated rhetoric that left both crying foul Wednesday night.
Cuccinelli scored sound points repeatedly asserting government experience he gleaned in eight years as a state senator and the last four as attorney general. At one point he exposed that McAuliffe didn't know that state constitutional amendment - not a law - is required to reverse the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
McAuliffe had just told NBC News political director Chuck Todd, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate moderator, that he supports "marriage equality'' and claimed that Cuccinelli had called gays 'soulless and self-destructive human beings.'' McAuliffe said it was a major difference between the two.
Cuccinelli denounced the quote about gays that McAuliffe had attributed to him as "offensively false.'' But at a 2008 Family Foundation event, Cuccinelli, then a state senator, was quoted as saying, "When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.''
Later, Cuccinelli flipped the question of McAuliffe's statements about Virginia's 2006 amendment limiting marriage in Virginia to a man and a woman, lecturing McAuliffe - who has never held elective public office - on legislative process. McAuliffe said that if he could get a marriage equality bill on his desk, he'd sign it.
"Actually, it doesn't happen in the form of a bill. It's a constitutional amendment so it never comes to the governor,'' Cuccinelli said.
To amend the constitution, a resolution must be passed unchanged by Virginia's General Assembly in two separate years divided by a legislative election, then put on a statewide ballot for voter approval in a general election.
After tweeting from inside the venue, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis released the following statement:
“Tonight’s debate was what everyone expected, a lot of negative attacks and very few ideas or solutions to the challenges Virginia faces. Voters aren’t served by the recitation of talking points.
“It’s unfortunate that Virginians couldn’t hear a better view, focused on building a Virginia that is Open-minded and Open for Business. The question about ethics was a perfect opportunity for someone to stand up for the Rule of Law and against corporatism in government.
“The questions about health-care could have begun a real discussion about what ails our health-care system, but neither candidate understands the problems, and as a result, it’s clear neither will pursue real solutions.
“And, Virginians missed an opportunity to hear someone argue passionately and effectively for recognition of same-sex marriage and to address the issue of drug reform.”
Headed into the debate, it was Cuccinelli who faced a steeper climb. McAuliffe is leading him 43 to 38 percent among likely voters, according to an NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll released Monday.
Sarvis carved out 8 percent for himself among those likely voters, the poll found.
The poll of 546 likely voters and 1,069 registered voters, conducted from Sept. 17 to 19, came two days before the debate, moderated by NBC News Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director Chuck Todd.
McAuliffe has the narrow advantage, something both campaigns privately acknowledge, but with six weeks to go until Election Day, the race is far from decided.
After a summer of mudslinging and negative campaign ads, neither candidate is well liked, an issue both candidates will have to overcome in Wednesday night's debate.
But Cuccinelli has taken a bigger hit. Just 34 percent of registered voters view Cuccinelli favorably, while 47 percent say they have an unfavorable impression of him. Back in May, it was the reverse – 42 favorable, 27 percent unfavorable.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, is on the positive side – 41 favorable, 34 percent negative – though those unfavorable numbers are up 10 points as more people have gotten to know the former Democratic National Committee chairman under Bill Clinton and party fundraiser.
Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, won't be participating in the debate, but he could present a threat to Cuccinelli. Sarvis is forecast to get 15 percent of independents, 5 percent of Republicans, and just 2 percent of Democrats.
"If this ends up very close, there is a factor there," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.