The candidates for Governor met Saturday morning for the first debate of the campaign, sharing a sharp exchange on issues including taxes, economic development, abortion rights and gay marriage.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe also confronted questions about the ethics scandal involving Governor Bob McDonnell, and recent calls for the Governor to resign.
The candidates sparred first over taxes, with McAuliffe labeling Cucinelli's call for a $1.4 billion tax cut as irresponsible. "I'd love to stand here today and promise everybody a $1.4 billion tax cut," McAuliffe said, "but it's fiscally irresponsible when you can't pay for it." Cuccinelli countered that taxes will increase in a McAulliffe administration. "I guess we know that taxes are going up," Cuccinelli told the audience, "but we don't yet know where." McAuliffe later told reporters he does not support increasing any state taxes.
The candidates squared off at the Omni Homestead Resort in Bath County where attorneys and judges have gathered for the summer meeting of the Virginia Bar Association. Their exchange lasted for an hour and a half, and included direct questions from the candidates.
The economic woes of southern Virginia played a role in one of the sharpest exchanges. Cuccinelli said McAuliffe "walked all over the people of Martinsville," when he took his Greentech Automotive plant to Mississippi. "Terry isn't about principles or good policy, Cuccinelli said. "He's about deals, influence-peddling deals that favor industries of his choice and his supporters." "There is only one candidate in this race who has chased business out of Virginia," Cuccinelli said as he pointed to McAuliffe, "It's you. It's Terry, not me."
McAuliffe defended the decision saying he had a responsibility to protect the shareholders of his company. He argued that Cuccinelli failed the taxpayers of Virginia when he accepted gifts from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy businessman who was disputing a 1.7 million dollar tax bill from the state.
"Instead of taking him to court, he was taking you to New York City," McAuliffe said. "He was giving you a mountain lake resort, a Smith Mountain Lake resort. He was buying you $1500 Thanksgiving dinners. You know, that's a lot of turkey."
On the ethics investigation involving Governor Bob McDonnell, both men said they support additional restrictions on gifts to public officials. Asked if McDonnell should resign, McAuliffe said he would wait for the current investigation to run its course before making a judgement. "I say everybody should stand down. We have an investigation going on. Let's get the facts out. He shouldn't be tried through the newspapers."
As Attorney General, Cuccinelli said it is inappropriate for him to comment. "While that question is appropriate to ask Governor McDonnell, and it is appropriate to ask him to think about that," Cuccinelli said, "I don't think it's appropriate for the sitting Attorney General to address it, when I started one of the investigations."
It's still unclear how many more debates we'll see. Both candidates have agreed to one debate, a meeting in Fairfax County in September. And the campaigns are still negotiating another that would be held in southwestern Virginia in October.