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The two major party candidates for Virginia governor squared off in an attack-laden second debate in Tysons Corner on Wednesday.

The tone of the debate was set early on when moderator Chuck Todd, NBC News political director, asked Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli to respond to the caricatures that have been painted of them by the other side. Both used a portion of their 90-second response to critique their opponent, rather than counter the attacks.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis was not invited to participate in the debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and NBC 4, despite his growing support in statewide polls.

“Tonight’s debate was what everyone expected, a lot of negative attacks and very few ideas or solutions to the challenges Virginia faces,” Sarvis said. “Voters aren’t served by the recitation of talking points. It’s unfortunate that Virginians couldn’t hear a better view.”

McAuliffe continued his attacks on Cuccinelli’s record on social issues, as well as questioning the attorney general’s ethics in relation to the Star Scientific gift scandal that has plagued Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) this year.

“There are consequences to this mean-spirited attack on women’s health, on gay Virginians,” McAuliffe said, repeating a popular Democratic campaign storyline about Cuccinelli’s social agenda nearly scuttling a deal to lure Northrop Grumman’s headquarters to Virginia.

Cuccinelli said during the debate that the Northrop Grumman story and the quote attributed to him about gay people being “self-destructive” are “unbelievably false.” Both anecdotes are based on published media reports from major newspapers.

For his part, the attorney general continued to try and portray McAuliffe as a classic Washington, D.C., wheeler-dealer who is ignorant about the inner workings of state government and is only looking out for his own interests.

“If Terry is elected governor we’re going to have to change the state motto from ‘sic semper tyrannis’ to ‘quid pro quo,’” he said.

McAuliffe gave Cuccinelli an opening to further assail his inexperience with state government when he said he would sign legislation allowing gay marriage if it made it through the General Assembly and onto his desk.

Cuccinelli lectured his opponent on the process, which involves the General Assembly passing the amendment language in two successive legislative session before it goes to a voter referendum, before going on to reassert his opposition to gay marriage.

The candidates traded barbs over tax and spending policies as well.

McAuliffe declined to put a price tag on his proposals to inject more money into education. He said he hopes to have about $500 million to work with if the state accepts federal money to expand Medicaid, which McAuliffe believes would inject new life into the state’s economy. He also says he would look for efficiencies in state government.

“If we don’t get the Medicaid expansion, we can’t bring in the efficiencies. … There’s not money to be spent,” McAuliffe said.

Cuccinelli also was not very specific, despite being pressed by the moderator, on how the state can afford his tax plan, which would reduce personal and business income taxes and remove an estimated $1.4 billion from state coffers. He says he would pay for it by eliminating 15 percent of tax exemptions and capping growth in state government.

Speaking with reporters after the debate, Cuccinelli said this plan would not be implemented in his first year in office.

“That’s going to take a lot of information” to determine what tax exemptions to remove, he said. “It’s going to take a year’s worth of work.”

Not surprisingly, both candidates say the other’s plan is insufficient and will harm state government operations.

The debate closed with a “lightning round” of two quick questions posed by moderator Chuck Todd, including a question about eliminating the so-called “King’s Dominion law” that mandates that school starts after Labor Day in most jurisdictions in the state.

McAuliffe said he would not support overturning it because “the tourism industry is too important.” He said there are other tactics, such as longer school days, that could achieve the same goal, he said.

“Children outrank tourism,” Cuccinelli retorted, noting that he had previously carried a bill seeking to overturn the law on behalf of the Fairfax County School Board.

The candidates will have one more debate before the Nov. 5 election, at Virginia Tech Oct. 24.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com