RICHMOND, Va. — Of all the debates that statewide candidates can’t neglect this fall, Wednesday’s Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce showdown tops the list.
You don’t say no to the captains of the most esteemed, politically attuned, wealthy and influential business demographic in Virginia’s most populous and prosperous region — the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
The Fairfax debate — televised live in prime time for the first time this year — has become an autumnal fixture that’s produced at least three memorable moments in the past eight years. Each has, at a minimum, clarified major elections, if not provided pivotal points on the final approach to Election Day.
In 2005, Republican Jerry Kilgore tripped up while trying to avoid moderator Tim Russert’s hypothetical abortion question and evoked peals of audience laughter at his expense in his unsuccessful governor’s race against Democrat Tim Kaine.
A year later, Republican George Allen fumbled a question about his mother’s Jewish heritage in a failed bid to win a re-election to his U.S. Senate seat against Democratic challenger Jim Webb.
In 2009, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds crawled onto a limb and sawed it off behind himself as reporters grilled him after the debate on the nettlesome issue of which taxes he’d raise to pay for highway funding if he were elected governor. It crippled Deeds’ campaign, but three years later, Gov. Bob McDonnell — the Republican who had won in a rout — did exactly what Deeds got battered for and boosted transportation taxes.
“I think it’s because of the pressure that this debate puts on the candidates,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and director of its Wasson Center for Public Policy. “This is the first debate after Labor Day and finally people are paying attention. The polls are shifting: people gaining here, slipping there.”
Kidd said that this year, the pressure will be most intense on Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. After the former Democratic National Committee chairman held the upper hand in a close race between two unpopular candidates for most of the summer over Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s trouble-plagued campaign, Cuccinelli had a potential breakout last week. He got validation from northern Virginia’s technology industry elite with the endorsement of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
In backing Cuccinelli, the group’s political action committee, TechPAC, highlighted a critical potential vulnerability for the 56-year-old McAuliffe: his breezy, short-on-specifics style compared with a richer mastery of state government policy and operations for Cuccinelli, 45, the current state attorney general and a state senator for eight years before that.
“The pressure’s going to be really intense on him (McAuliffe). Cuccinelli had a horrible summer but after his campaign’s mini-shakeup a couple of weeks ago, he’s doubled down on efforts to portray McAuliffe as shallow and lacking in knowledge,” Kidd said.
McAuliffe exceeded expectations and kept Cuccinelli flustered and on the defensive for most of their first debate — an obscure faceoff on a Saturday morning in July before several hundred attorneys at the Virginia Bar Association’s annual debate at the posh Homestead Resort in Bath County’s remote Alleghany Mountains.
But McAuliffe compromised his performance late in the debate by getting loose with the facts. He mischaracterized a Richmond prosecutor’s report that cleared Cuccinelli of violating the state’s ethics laws with his tardy disclosures of thousands of dollars in gifts from businessman benefactor Jonnie R. Williams. McAuliffe erroneously concluded that the report said Cuccinelli should have been prosecuted if not for Virginia’s weak law.
Lapses like that are often fatal for an unprepared or unskilled candidate in the Fairfax County Chamber debate, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. That’s partly because it has tough, nationally known moderators from Washington and rules that permit them to press an evasive candidate for straight answers.
That allowed the late Russert, longtime moderator of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” to turn the tables on Kilgore in 2005, leading the former attorney general to give an unequivocal promise to veto a hypothetical tax increase just moments after he’d refused to say whether he’d sign an abortion ban because the question was hypothetical. Kilgore’s campaign never pulled out of its death spiral afterward.
“Moderators ask them tough questions and they’re allowed to challenge and go after candidates. Russert did that, and (NBC political director) Chuck Todd’s not going to back down and let a candidate off the hook this year,” Sabato said.
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