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The two major party candidates for Virginia governor didn’t pull any punches in their first formal debate of the campaign.

While discussing their plans for the economy and major issues like transportation spending and taxes, both Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe peppered the debate with negative attacks on one another, from their opening statements to the final minutes of the 90-minute forum.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis was not included in the debate, which was hosted by the Virginia Bar Association at The Homestead resort in Hot Springs Saturday morning.

“My opponents spent most of their time arguing who is the bigger ‘crony-ist,’ and giving us the same vague pablum and bickering we expect from Republicans and Democrats,” Sarvis said in a released statement, reacting to the debate. “If I had been included in the debate, voters would have heard a much more honest and adult conversation on the issues that matter the most to them.”

Staying true to the themes of their respective campaigns, Cuccinelli strove to portray McAuliffe as a union-backed Washington insider who has no experience in Virginia government.

McAuliffe repeatedly highlighted Cuccinelli’s positions on social issues, which he says are out of step with Virginia voters, and questioned the attorney general’s ethics in relation to gifts he received from a business owner.

Both candidates say they are putting the state’s economy first.

Going into the debate, McAuliffe had a slight edge in the polls and a significant edge in fundraising. He has raised more than $12.6 million so far in this campaign, compared to Cuccinelli’s $7.7 million.

As Cuccinelli has noted at other campaign appearances, he has a track record of winning elections against opponents who out-spend him.

Two of the three polls conducted in July show McAuliffe with a four-percentage-point edge over Cuccinelli, while a third had Cuccinelli up by 6 percent.

In terms of bolstering the state’s economy, McAuliffe’s plan calls for improving the state’s educational programs, both at the K-12 level and by offering more workforce training through the community colleges, and diversifying the economy so Virginia is less dependent on federal spending.

He also said there is a need to improve broadband access and transportation in the rural areas of Virginia in order to make those areas attractive to businesses.

McAuliffe said Cuccinelli’s positions on social issues would be harmful to the state’s attempts to recruit businesses to locate here. McAuliffe claims that Northrop Grumman nearly reversed its decision to relocate its headquarters in Fairfax after Cuccinelli wrote letters to all of the state’s colleges and universities telling them they cannot adopt policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“There are consequences to mean-spirited, hateful comments,” McAuliffe said.

Cuccinelli did not dispute McAuliffe’s account of the Northrop Grumman relocation during the debate, instead turning the focus to McAuliffe’s decision to locate a manufacturing facility he was involved with in Mississippi, instead of Virginia.

“The only person who has driven business out of Virginia is you, You put Terry first,” Cuccinelli said.

For his part, McAuliffe said he made the choice that was best for his business.

The main component of Cuccinelli’s jobs plan involves reducing taxes for middle-class families and small business owners, which he believes would stimulate economic growth.

As is his standard practice at campaign events, he offered few other specifics in his remarks, but directed debate viewers to his website to read about his jobs plan in more detail.

Cuccinelli said he would fund the tax cuts by cutting spending and closing tax loopholes, although he says he won’t determine which ones until he is in office.

“I think that the minute that you start naming one versus the other, you abandon the process,” he said. His process would require industries that benefit from tax incentives to demonstrate that they are good for all Virginians, not just a single industry.

McAuliffe also declined to get very specific on how he would fund his initiatives, even though debate moderator Judy Wooduff pressed both candidates to do so. McAuliffe also cited closing tax loopholes as a possible source of funding.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com