McLEAN, Va. (CBSDC/AP)— Republican Ken Cuccinelli pushed his knowledge of Virginia’s government in a debate that, at times, left his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Terry McAuliffe, without answers or changing the subject.

And Cuccinelli found himself furiously rejecting McAuliffe claims that his actions against gay rights as attorney general had almost driven business from Virginia and that he had put wealthy benefactors and campaign contributors ahead of state taxpayers.

The first prime-time television debate in Virginia’s 2013 governor’s race, held at the headquarters of Capitol One bank, provoked overstated rhetoric that left both crying foul Wednesday night.

McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton White House insider, sought to position himself as the pro-business moderate in the race, repeatedly invoking the name of popular Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner, who was a moderate governor.

“My opponent talks a lot about experience, but his experience has been in dividing people, by pursuing his own ideological agenda, introducing legislation that would outlaw most common forms of birth control and bullying the Board of Health, which resulted in the shutting down of some women’s health centers,” McAuliffe said. “Frankly, I think Virginia women have had just about enough of Ken Cuccinelli’s experience.”

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Independent polling over the past week showed McAuliffe enjoying a lead of 20 or more percentage points over Cuccinelli among female voters.

Cuccinelli repeatedly pointed to government experience he gleaned in eight years as a state senator and the last four as attorney general. At one point the Republican exposed that McAuliffe didn’t know that a state constitutional amendment — not a law — is required to reverse the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

McAuliffe had just told NBC News political director Chuck Todd, the moderator of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate, that he supports “marriage equality” and claimed that Cuccinelli had called gays “soulless and self-destructive human beings.” McAuliffe said it was a major difference between the two.

Cuccinelli denounced the quote about gays that McAuliffe had attributed to him as “offensively false.” But at a 2008 Family Foundation event, Cuccinelli, then a state senator, was quoted as saying, “When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.”

Later, Cuccinelli flipped the question of McAuliffe’s statements about Virginia’s 2006 amendment limiting marriage in Virginia to a man and a woman, lecturing McAuliffe — who has never held elective public office — on legislative process. McAuliffe said that if he could get a marriage equality bill on his desk, he’d sign it.

“Actually, it doesn’t happen in the form of a bill. It’s a constitutional amendment so it never comes to the governor,” Cuccinelli said.

To amend the constitution, a resolution must be passed unchanged by Virginia’s General Assembly in two separate years separated by a legislative election, then put on a statewide ballot for voter approval in a general election.

Cuccinelli also had trouble with some specifics. When he was pressed to say which state tax breaks he would close to help pay for his proposed $1.4 billion in tax cuts, he would say only that a panel would be tasked to find and target about one-sixth of the state’s current exemptions or deductions that no longer served a worthy purpose.

McAuliffe brought discussion of most every policy or fiscal issue back to Medicaid expansion, arguing that its supposed savings to the state from the federal government footing the entire cost of expansion were vital to Virginia’s budgetary integrity.

When Todd demanded that McAuliffe provide a price tag for his education reform proposals, Medicaid expansion was his answer.

“The key is going to be the Medicaid expansion,” he said. “My opponent doesn’t want it. I want it. The Fairfax Chamber (of Commerce) … wants the expansion. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports the Medicaid expansion. So does (Republican) Lt. Gov Bill Bolling. This is bipartisan, mainstream,” he said, arguing that the state would pocket $21 billion the next three years from it.

He also noted that some conservative GOP governors, including Ohio’s John Kasich and Arizona’s Jan Brewer, had approved Medicaid expansion.

Cuccinelli said the opposite would be true, noting that House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, told him not to bank on the feds.

“Congressman Ryan told me, ‘Ken, it doesn’t matter whether Democrats are in charge up here or Republicans, we don’t have the money in the federal government to meet these matches that are proposed in the federal health care bill,'” said Cuccinelli, who was the first state attorney general in 2010 to file lawsuits challenging the Democratic-passed Affordable Care Act he calls “Obamacare.”

Cuccinelli said that he had become familiar with how Medicaid operates, found fraud in it and identified areas where it could be run more cheaply and efficiently.

“It’s hard to find inefficiencies in a government you don’t understand, and Terry McAuliffe doesn’t know how Virginia government works,” Cuccinelli said.

On other issues, McAuliffe said he supported strengthening laws requiring background checks for all firearms sales in Virginia following last week’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard carried out by a mentally disturbed man with a shotgun bought in Virginia. The gunman killed 12 people before he was slain by police.

Cuccinelli, asked why he accepted gifts totaling $18,000 from troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., and its chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., pointed the finger at fellow Republican, Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“Ironically, I met Mr. Williams through the governor,” Cuccinelli said as laughter rippled across the audience. McDonnell is the subject of federal and state criminal investigations into about $145,000 worth of gifts and loans from Willliams and whether Williams or his company benefited from them. “It didn’t seem like a big deal.”

Then he noted that he had pushed for a special legislative session to strengthen Virginia’s ethics laws — among the nation’s most porous. “I would have liked to have gotten it done during the summer, but the governor didn’t agree with us,” Cuccinelli said.

The Republican also assailed McAuliffe as a businessman who used political connections to put profits over ethics, particularly in his role as chairman of electric-car manufacturer GreenTech Automotive.

“The comparison here is someone who has told the New York Times, … ‘You know, you help me, I help you,'” Cuccinelli said. “If Terry’s elected governor, we’re going to have to change the state motto from ‘Sic semper tyrannis’ to ‘quid pro quo.'”

The two disagreed on a Virginia law that prevents public schools in areas of the state that depend heavily on tourism from opening each year before Labor Day to accommodate hotels, amusement parks and other vacation venues.

McAuliffe said he’d keep the law intact. “The tourism business is too important. The change … would cost us about $369 million,” he said.

“Children outrank tourism,” Cuccinelli shot back, calling for allowing cities and counties to set their own school calendars.

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