Analysis: Any fireworks in the final Virginia governor’s debate?

state-capitol2Might Ken Cuccinelli have an October surprise for Terry McAuliffe? Can McAuliffe stay on-script and avoid being off-the-cuff this one last time?

These are the subplots heading into the final TV debate of the Virginia governor’s race.

The debate, sponsored by WDBJ and Virginia Tech, will come and go Thursday with the vast majority of us not even thinking or caring about what goes on.

Those who do care are wondering how much Cuccinelli, down big in recent polls, will come out swinging, and how effective whatever he does Thursday night will be, considering how ineffective the Cuccinelli campaign has been getting any of its message over to voters.

The big problem there is similar to the problem Creigh Deeds experienced in his 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Like Deeds did in his race with Bob McDonnell, Cuccinelli has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get you to understand that the other guy is the devil incarnate and barely any time telling you what he’d do if elected.

The McAuliffe side, for its part, has seized the high road, selling the former Democratic National Committee chairman as a business-focused leader and selling Cuccinelli as a guy who will govern the way he ran the attorney general’s office, suing anybody and everybody who disagrees with him and his way of seeing the world.

You can expect Cuccinelli to continue with his efforts to paint McAuliffe as a sleazeball insider, and McAuliffe to continue to push the image his campaign has been painting of Cuccinelli as being a rabid Tea Party extremist who would derail Virginia’s economy with his windmill-tilting.

Expect a spirited back-and-forth on the federal government shutdown as well. The race really started breaking big for McAuliffe around the time the House Republican Caucus in Congress decided to play hardball with President Obama over healthcare reform. Polls have roughly half the electorate saying the shutdown and what led to it are important issues for them in the governor’s race, and McAuliffe leads by a 2-1 margin among those voters.

Cuccinelli needs to try to peel some of those voters off McAuliffe, but it’s hard to imagine how he can do that, particularly because he’s been saying as recently as this week that he’s not sure that he would have voted to end the shutdown if he were in Congress.

Questions on issues involving abortion and women’s health issues in general are also a sure bet. Women are breaking in favor of McAuliffe by about a 20-point margin, and it’s hard to figure that Cuccinelli can make any inroads among women outside the Tea Party set given his long record of strong support for extremist social conservative positions on reproductive-health issues.

So there you go. You can skip the debate to read about it in the morning, and skip that, too, if you want.

– Analysis by Chris Graham

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