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GOP's Cuccinelli in spotlight in pivotal Virginia debate

Virginia has changed from a solidly-Republican state to a true toss-up over the course of its past few elections. And at a pivotal debate Wednesday heading into a closely-watched governor's race, a looming question was put to the test: Can conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli pull out a win in this rapidly-changing state?

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, listens as Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks at a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate on Sept. 25, in McLean, Va. Linda Davidson / The Washington Post pool via AP

From the opening, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe insisted that this campaign is about which candidate would "govern from the mainstream," a dig at his Republican opponent's deeply conservative record, especially on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Cuccinelli, the state’s Attorney General, countered with an experience argument, saying he is the only candidate who wouldn't need "on-the-job training," a swipe at McAuliffe's scant record of government service and his history as a Democratic Party operative.

The two candidates met for the NBC 4/ Washington Post debate in vote-rich northern Virginia less than seven weeks before an important election in this emerging swing state. A deeply negative campaign, the debate was no different — Cuccinelli and McAuliffe wasted no time going directly at the other's vulnerabilities in a race that remains unpredictable.

But much of the debate saw Cuccinelli work to broaden and soften his image. He entered Wednesday's debate trailing McAuliffe in most polls, suffering deficits among women voters and Virginians in key suburban areas. He spoke repeatedly of his work to free innocent convicts and prevent sexual assault in hopes of breaking down his portrayal as a hard-charging conservative.

"No one up here has done more to protect women than I have," Cuccinelli said of himself and his challenger.

McAuliffe, by contrast, was all too eager to highlight the attorney general's past actions on abortion rights, and his comments about gay rights.

"Women are 50 percent of the workforce," McAuliffe told the moderator, NBC News' Chuck Todd. "You cannot grow an economy by putting walls up around Virginia."

The Democrat added: "There are consequences to these mean-spirited attacks on women's health, on gay Virginians," tying his case on social issues to a broader economic theme.

The thrust of Cuccinelli's case was to point out that McAuliffe has been, to this point, a career political operative with no elective experience.

"Terry McAuliffe doesn't understand how Virginia government works," Cuccinelli said. "Governor is not a good entry-level job, and that's what it would be for Terry."

Cuccinelli also riffed on his opponent's political connections by delivering a zinger: "If Terry's elected governor, we're going to have to change the state motto from 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' to 'Quid Pro Quo.'"

A key point where both candidates differed was on gun control. McAuliffe said he would support an assualt weapons ban and expanded background checks, while Cuccinelli said more emphasis on mental health could help prevent future tragedies like last week's Navy Yard massacre.

"Whatever rating I may get from the NRA, I'm gonna stand here and tell you today as govenror, I want to make sure that every one of our citizens in the Commonwelath of Virginia are safe."

Cuccinelli touted his work in helping those with mental illness, and said Virginia had made strides in that area.

"We have not found gun control to be effective in that area," said Cucinelli.

The debate has important political implications for a major election in a major swing state.

McAuliffe entered the debate with a modest lead over Cuccinelli in several different polls. An NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll conducted last week found McAuliffe leading the conservative attorney general 43 to 38 percent among likely voters, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis trailing at 8 percent.

Historically, the governor's mansion in Virginia has gone to the candidate of the party opposite of whoever is in the White House; a year after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Virginians chose Republican Bob McDonnell as their governor — reversing two straight terms of Democratic control in Richmond. If McAuliffe were elected, it would break with recent historic precedent, since Obama remains in the White House.

Political observers have also typically looked toward the Virginia governor's race — which plays out a year after every presidential election — as a key indicator of national political trends. When McDonnell was elected in 2009, it was interpreted as a harbinger of the Republican wave of the 2010 midterm elections. The Old Dominion's demographic changes and increasing competitiveness in statewide elections have helped the state emerge as one of the key electoral bellwethers in the nation.

The 2013 campaign in Virginia makes it difficult, though, to draw broad extrapolations. Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have run sharply negative campaigns against each other in a bid to disqualify the other in the minds of voters. Those attacks have taken a toll: 49 percent of likely voters express an unfavorable view of Cuccinelli, versus 31 percent who voice a favorable opinion; McAuliffe is seen favorably by 44 percent of likely voters, versus 36 percent who see him unfavorably.

Wednesday's meeting between the two candidates seemed unlikely to do much to change those impressions. Even on matters of policy, the candidates mostly declined to engage with specifics, preferring to pivot back to attacks against each other.

When pressed to specify which tax loopholes he would close to finance his tax cut plan, Cuccinelli responded: "There's literally scores of them."

McAuliffe was scarcely more specific about how much he would spend to fund his own spending initiatives.

The Democrat did slightly distance himself, though, from Obama and the current morass on Capitol Hill over how to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.

"I'd place a pox on everybody's houses," McAuliffe said. "Shame on everybody."

Cuccinelli also sought to remove himself from other conservatives in his party, almost disparaging Sen. Ted Cruz's all-night rant on the Senate floor on his opposition to Obamacare funding at any cost. A government shutdown, he said, would be espeically devastating to federal-government dependent Northern Virginia.

"He finished a sort of filibuster today, and at some point we've got to vote," said Cuccinelli. "I'd like to see Obamacare pulled out of the federal law, but we've got to keep moving forward and make compromises to get a budget."