In a rare consensus, political scientists agreed Thursday night Terry McAuliffe bested Ken Cuccinelli in the gubernatorial debate at Virginia Tech. It’s not that the Democrat “won” the contest – he just didn’t lose ground.
Cuccinelli elicited a few laughs from the Haymarket Theater audience when he said McAuliffe’s education policies were like puppies – “everyone loves them.”
But the Republican failed to dent public opinion polls’ sense of inevitability about McAuliffe’s well-oiled campaign juggernaut.
The former Democratic National Committee chairman, who brings in Bill Clinton for added firepower at campaign stops next week, has the political winds at his back.
Even conservatives were feeling unsettled. “Yes, we all love puppies, but at this point in the race, my friends are looking for Ken to bring out a junkyard dog,” Rick Buchanan, who edits the Greene County Free Citizen, told Watchdog.org.
“Was there a winner? Yes, the person who goes in on top and maintains his position wins. The debate itself was probably a tie on points, but a tie for McAuliffe means he maintains his advantage,” said Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “I don’t expect the overall dynamic of the campaign to change as a result of the debate.”
Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said, “One key lesson of the debate is that candidates should not try to be Jon Stewart. Comedy doesn’t work well – be it about puppies or unicorns.
“Given his lead in the polls, McAuliffe only needed to run out the clock and avoid making a mistake. He did that. Cuccinelli was more specific, but there really was no game-changer.” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball University of Virginia Center for Politics, flatly declared McAuliffe the winner Thursday night “because nothing happened to change the trajectory of the race, and I imagine that hardly anyone was watching (it wasn’t broadcast in much of the state).” He added:
Reasonable minds can disagree about which candidate performed better, but given that McAuliffe, the frontrunner, didn’t make an obvious huge mistake, it’s largely an academic argument.
The Daily Show was on hand, trying to add its own brand of levity to the third gubernatorial debate. Both candidates shunned the team’s camera crews and its questions.
The Cuccinelli campaign held its post-debate briefing behind closed doors, barring Stewart’s contingent (Stewart was not present).
McAuliffe conducted a tightly orchestrated press gaggle at which an aide selected four reporters to ask questions, which the candidate perfunctorily answered and then abruptly departed.
Asked afterward about McAuliffe’s assertion that “Cuccinelli spoke to the tea party and I spoke to Virginians tonight,” the GOP attorney general gave a facetious “gasp,” and then questioned the Democrat’s commitment to the Old Dominion.
“He’s done nothing for Virginia,” he told Watchdog. “When I was (a student) at the University of Virginia, I started a group to defend against sexual assault.” The Virginia native went on to list several other groups and programs he initiated at George Mason University and, later, a pro-bono legal group for veterans.
“Terry can say whatever he wants, he doesn’t give a rat’s tail about Virginia,” Cuccinelli said.
Though some forensics observers applauded Cuccinelli’s responsiveness to questions and derided McAuliffe’s evasive, long-winded talking points, Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians concluded, “Unless the polls are wrong about which voters are going to turn out on Nov. 5, McAuliffe won the debate by default.”
Cross-posted at Watchdog.org.