Zingers weren't exactly flying. In a rare, side-by-side appearance last week, Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe spoke separately before a packed luncheon sponsored by the Virginia Public Access project, a nonpartisan group that monitors transparency in political giving.
It should have been a rich topic given the recent headlines. Hard-right Cuccinelli has been under the spotlight for not promptly disclosing thousands of dollars in gifts and stock ownership in Henrico-based vitamin supplement-maker Star Scientific. The company is under investigation by the FBI, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring is looking into the economic impact statements of Gov. Bob McDonnell, who also has accepted gifts that he initially did not disclose.
"We're here today to discuss transparency," Cuccinelli tells the audience, somewhat disingenuously. He hit McAuliffe, who has never held elected office, for not disclosing eight years of tax returns. Cuccinelli has allowed reporters a peek at his, but has refused to give out copies. The closest the attorney general came to talking about Star Scientific was that he "admits his mistakes" with transparency.
Given the pinstriped, Main Street venue, Cuccinelli wisely did not stray into the social conservatism that is the mark of his campaign. Unaddressed was the recent Republican convention that he masterminded, wherein delegates picked for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, a minister who may be even more strident in his views on abortion and homosexuality than Cuccinelli. For attorney general, the conventioneers nominated Mark Obenshain, who once introduced a law that would require Virginia women to report miscarriages to police.
McAuliffe pounced on the red flag topics, calling for a state ethics commission and stating: "We cannot be attacking women. We cannot be cannot be putting up walls around Virginia. We cannot be attacking members of the LGBT community."
Unlike Cuccinelli, he expanded a bit more on his platform, such as creating 21st century jobs, visiting all of the state's community colleges (18 of 23 so far), redoing the state Standards of Learning school testing program, and, in a back-handed slap at his opponent, praising McDonnell for his $3.4 billion road-building plan. Cuccinelli only recently has backed the governor's transportation plan, which relies on a sales tax hike.
So what does the luncheon say about the gubernatorial race? Given McAuliffe's more aggressive and on-point speech, it may explain his slow advance in recent polls. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe started out about virtually even in the polls, but a Washington Post survey in early May gave Cuccinelli a five-point lead. More recent polls by Quinnipiac University and Public Policy Polling have turned that around, giving McAuliffe the lead by about the same margin.
It also shows how Cuccinelli is tailoring his campaign. He seems to have one script for the business crowd that held its nose during the Republican convention. He has another for edge players including the tea party, right-to-life groups, rural, white Virginians and viewers of national, right-wing television shows such as Pat Robertson's "700 Club" and Fox News that help draw out-of-state money. Lieutenant governor candidate Jackson, who says Planned Parenthood is more lethal to African-Americans than the Ku Klux Klan, has been a regular guest on such broadcasts.
Some analysts say that McAuliffe, a former Democratic Party chairman and fundraiser and Clinton confidante from Northern Virginia, still has a long ways to go. "McAuliffe has a higher bar," says political analyst Bob Holsworth. "He has to convince Virginia that he has the experience to be governor."
For Cuccinelli, running with such fellow polarizing candidates as Jackson may not be a deciding factor, although thoughtful voters may worry about the chance that as lieutenant governor, Jackson could cast the deciding vote in the Senate on deadlocked and critically-important issues. One obvious ploy for McAuliffe, Holsworth says, would be to use Jackson as a way to "tarnish the Republican brand." Democrats successfully used such a ruse to nail William Todd Akin in his U.S. Senate race in Missouri last year. Akin self-destructed after saying that women who are victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant because the female body "has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
State voting patterns, however, have shown that "the top half of the ticket isn't really affected by the bottom half," Holsworth says.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are preparing for their primary June 11. None of the candidates brings the high-octane controversy of the Republicans, but the Democrats will offer a slate of largely unknown challengers.
Running for the lieutenant governor nomination is Aneesh Chopra, a business executive who is Barack Obama's chief technology officer, a role similar to one held in Virginia when Tim Kaine was governor. His opponent is Norfolk physician Ralph Northam. Running for the attorney general nomination are Mark Herring, a Loudoun County state senator and lawyer and Justin Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor.
A challenge for Cuccinelli is to get past Jackson and get on with contrasting himself with McAuliffe on such issues as experience in elected office, Holsworth says. And McAuliffe needs to do a better job of reaching out to core but neglected voters, such as single, middle-income women and newcomers to the state who, during the last election, cast critical votes for Obama.
As far as fundraising, so far McAuliffe clearly has an edge. Money, some from major out-of-state interests such as the strongly conservative Koch Brothers, continues to flow with McAuliffe raising $6.7 million to Cuccinelli's $4.3 million.
More clues will come during debates between the candidates. One is slated for July at the annual meeting of the Virginia Bar Association at the white shoe Homestead resort. Cuccinelli wants 15 debate sessions with McAuliffe. At last week's luncheon, however, there were no debates and no questions allowed. S