HOT SPRINGS, Va. — Virginia’s normally sedate midsummer debate started out edgy, got downright nasty and saw the facts twisted at times as Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe clashed one-on-one for the first time in this year’s only competitive governor’s race.

McAuliffe, exceeding low expectations and striving to establish himself as the moderate in the race, nailed Cuccinelli repeatedly over thousands of dollars in gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Star Scientific Inc., the troubled nutritional supplements maker he heads.

He also criticized Cuccinelli for supporting socially conservative activism that he described as deterring Virginia’s business growth.

“There are consequences to mean-spirited hatefulness,” McAuliffe said, citing Cuccinelli’s legal actions against a University of Virginia climate-change researcher; a 2010 letter telling state-supported colleges they couldn’t enact anti-discrimination policies protecting gays; and actions to restrict abortions in Virginia.

But Cuccinelli gave as good as he got, accusing McAuliffe of stiff-arming some of Virginia’s most destitute regions and planting a new electric-car factory in a Mississippi suburb of Memphis, Tenn., instead of Virginia when he was chairman of GreenTech Automotive.

“The only candidate in this race who has chased business out of Virginia is you. It’s Terry, not me,” Cuccinelli said. He noted that McAuliffe, in his failed 2009 gubernatorial bid, had lamented the 20 percent unemployment rate in Martinsville, Va., yet given the chance to locate GreenTech’s MyCar plant there, he went elsewhere.

“You walked right over the people of Martinsville on your way to Mississippi. Instead of putting Virginians first, you put Terry first … a common theme for you,” Cuccinelli said. Later, he provoked laughter and a smattering of applause when he turned to McAuliffe and said, “OK, so you picked Mississippi. Go run for governor of Mississippi.”

Judy Woodruff of PBS’ “NewsHour” moderated the debate, asking questions about transportation, education, and economic development policy. But the debate was so hostile each candidate turned their answers into aspersions against the other.

McAuliffe repeatedly dinged Cuccinelli over his opposition to the first reform of Virginia’s broken transportation funding formula in 27 years — legislation that created an unlikely alliance of McAuliffe and Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, but that outraged some Republicans, including Cuccinelli, because it increased some taxes.

Without the reforms, McAuliffe said, Virginia would have lost millions of dollars in federal transportation matching funds, and the congested roads of populous northern Virginia and Hampton Roads would worsen, killing economic growth.

“It was getting to the point where businesses would not move here,” McAuliffe said.

Then, when he got to ask Cuccinelli a question of his own as debate rules allowed, he referenced remarks Cuccinelli made to conservative groups in 2006 and 2008 in which he said advocating issues such as transportation funding and police compensation helps voters accept unflinching conservative positions on emotional issues such as abortion. In a 2006 video, Cuccinelli said he galvanized church groups “on pro-life and taxes.”

Meanwhile, “We told the (Washington) Post we were talking about transportation,” Cuccinelli said, shrugging in the YouTube video distributed by McAuliffe’s campaign. “They bought it.”

In an online chat in March 2008 with the Family Foundation, Cuccinelli hit the same theme, invoking the political advice of Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, the House’s foremost abortion foe, who remarked, “if you want to fight abortion, you have to fill potholes.”

“He made a joke about it afterward, that he’d misled the Washington Post, and everybody had a good chuckle about it,” McAuliffe said. “He says one thing and he does something. Ken, you are the true Trojan Horse of Virginia politics.”

Cuccinelli responded with questions about McAuliffe’s long and sometimes murky record in business, particularly his unannounced resignation in November from GreenTech even as he touted the company as one of his job-creation credentials.

The most contentious moments, however, came midway through the 90-minute debate when Cuccinelli was under fire for his ties to Williams.

McAuliffe landed several solid, well-rehearsed one-liners about $18,000 in gifts Williams gave Cuccinelli, including a $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner at Williams’ luxury waterside lodge on Smith Mountain Lake.

“You know, that’s a lot of turkey,” McAullife said, evoking laughter.

He noted that as state’s attorney general, Star Scientific was Cuccinelli’s lone stock holding. Later, Star Scientific sued Virginia’s Department of Taxation. The case languished in court for 21 months before Cuccinelli, citing a conflict of interest, appointed private lawyers to handle the case.

“Instead of you taking him (Williams) to court, he was taking you to New York City,” McAuliffe quipped.

Scowling, Cuccinelli retorted, “The only thing from Star that came into the governor’s office was their tax case and the only thing we have done is fight it. That’s it.”

Just as McAuliffe got rolling, however, he misstated a couple of facts.

First, he mischaracterized a Richmond prosecutor’s report Thursday that cleared Cuccinelli of violating Virginia ethics laws with his belated disclosures of several Williams gifts.

“If you read the whole report, which I have done, it says in here that the attorney general should have been prosecuted, but the Virginia disclosure laws are insufficient,” McAuliffe said. The report makes no such assertion.

He also claimed that a judge took the tax case away from the attorney general’s office because of a conflict of interest. Cuccinelli handed the case off to outside lawyers on his own two weeks after a story by The Associated Press revealed the conflict of interest.

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