By Jason Spencer
In a governor's race where the two major-party candidates have spent millions of dollars in advertising tearing each other to shreds, it wasn't surprising Thursday night to hear many of those attacks again and again during the final debate between Democrat Terry McAuiliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
The hour-long event, broadcast locally on NewsChannel 8 and streamed online, was held at the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The candidates were asked about gun control twice. The campus was the scene of a mass shooting in 2007, when a student shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 more.
One of the questions, submitted in advance via social media, asked if the candidates supported background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles.
McAuliffe — who over the course of the night talked about meeting with a Virginia Tech survivor, pointed out that he was wearing a Virginia Tech memorial pin and recited part of a letter left at the memorial to the victims — said he was a gun owner and hunter and supported universal background checks.
He did not say whether he supported either ban.
Cuccinelli didn't answer any part of the question, saying, "None of what you asked about would have affected" the tragedy at Virginia Tech. He instead talked about the work he's done in the mental health arena over the past 15 years and said that he'd support new spending for mental health services.
He also pointed out that he had an "A" rating from the Fairfax-based National Rifle Association and that McAuliffe had an "F."
Another question on gun control, which came later, asked the candidates if they supported arming teachers and administrators and placing armed security guards at schools.
McAuliffe said he didn't believe teachers and professors should be armed, but he believed Virginia should take advantage of programs that increase security and resource officers in schools.
And, he said, "I don't care what grade I got from the NRA."
Cuccinelli did not address arming teachers or adding security, instead returning to the idea of treating people with mental problems as a deterrent to gun violence. He said Virginia needed to do better at training people in law enforcement and other fields to deal with those suffering from mental health problems in order to get those people out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.
Much of the rest of the debate was more of the same to anyone paying attention, with the candidates seemingly spending more time attacking one another than directly answering questions.
Cuccinelli painted McAuliffe as a huckster living in a fantasy world where he could run a state despite having zero experience. McAuliffe characterized Cuccinelli as a social ideologue who wants to trample the rights of women and get his kicks out of suing scientists he disagrees with.
Cuccinelli pressed McAuliffe several times to explain how he would pay for his ideas, saying the Democrat believed Medicaid expansion was like a "magical money tree" that would fund everything he wanted.
"Saying the words 'education' and 'jobs,' — those are nice. But those are goals. Those are platitudes. There's no plan," Cuccinelli said, leading into the night's most memorable line. "I like education. I like puppies … But I don't bring a puppy home if I don't have a plan to take care of it.
He added: "He's all puppy and no plan."
(Earlier, McAuliffe got in his own reference to a cute, fantasy animal: "His plan is a little like believing he came here on a unicorn tonight," he said, in reference to his opponent's budget plan.)
McAuliffe defended himself the same way each time he was pressed, saying Medicaid expansion would "free up" $500 million dollars and that he would determine how and what to fund after looking for government efficiencies — without saying what those might be.
The only responsible way to budget, he said, is to know how much money is available and then look to your priorities.
"You don't pay for them until you find out how much money you have first," he said.
McAuliffe also promised "no new taxes," a phrase that has come back to bite many a politician.
Cuccinelli insisted that he had a plan to create 58,000 new jobs and that it could be paid for by eliminating one-sixth of inappropriate tax exemptions and loopholes.
On Medicaid, Cuccinelli said, "It's welfare. It's not a jobs program. You can't make magic money out of the federal government."
Cuccinelli blamed debate organizers for setting the rules — though he failed to mention both campaigns had a say in that — and he talked about his support from U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and work he had done to defend liberty, including exonerating a man who had been wrongfully imprisoned.
McAuliffe said he would welcome having Sarvis in the debate.