Trailing in polls for weeks, Republican Ken Cuccinelli pinned his waning hopes in the Virginia governor's race to Obamacare's woes, warning of the "big government" he claimed will envelop the state should the GOP lose control of the statehouse. But a last-ditch effort in the final debate of the campaign may not be enough to overcome his steady deficit to the Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe.
The GOP attorney general opened and closed the hour-long exchange at Virginia Tech with shots at the glitches the health care website has been plagued by, and maintained that McAuliffe's support for the plan and additional Medicaid expansion would be devastating for the state.
"Virginians, if you want to reject Obamacare and Terry McAuliffe's failed big government approach, you've got your chance on November 5."
The last of three debates didn't stray much from the bitter back and forth that's permeated the campaign all year -- but both had zingers that often bordered on the absurd as they challenged their rivals on exactly how much their budget plans would cost.
Cuccinelli frequently complained that McAuliffe's proposals to expand education without raising taxes was all "platitudes, no plan."
"I like education. I like puppies, but I don't bring a puppy home if I don't have a plan for that puppy," Cuccinelli jabbed. "He's all puppy and no plans."
McAuliffe had his own fuzzy analogy too, zinging that Cuccinelli's "plan is like believing you came here on a unicorn."
One of the sharpest divides between the two candidates came gun control, an issue even more pronounced on the campus where a gunman killed 32 people in 2007, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
While Cuccinelli boasted his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and McAuliffe's "F" grade, the Democrat offered one of his boldest rebukes yet to the influential pro-gun group in a state that just a few years ago would never have seen a winning candidate go on the attack against gun rights.
"I don't care what grade I got from the NRA," said McAuliffe. "As governor, I want to make sure our communities are safe. I don't want to see another Newtown, Aurora, or Virginia Tech."
"I support universal background checks. My opponent does not. This is a fundamental difference in the race," the Democrat later added. "It is time we stand up and fight."
The attorney general reiterated his calls for a focus on mental health education as the most important way to stop deadly mass shooting incidents, and said he's long been a leader on the issue.
"It's nearly impossible to find the next Cho before it happens," Cuccinelli said, referring to Seung-Hui Choi, the Virginia Tech gunman. "But we can find people who are suffering and help them along the way."
Often returning to familiar themes of the race, Cuccinelli reiterated his experience in government and his opponent's lack thereof, while McAuliffe's took many shots at the attorney general's conservative social positions, arguing they would drive business away from the state.
"There's somebody in this audience who's gay or knows someone who's gay," said McAuliffe, criticizing his opponent for controversial comments he's made in the past. "You cannot grow & diversify an economy with this mean, divisive language."
Cuccinelli again sought to paint McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee Chairman and fundraiser and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as a creature of Washington and not the Old Dominion.
"Terry McAuliffe literally did nothing for Virginia or for Virginians before deciding to run for governor --nothing," said Cuccinelli.
Another sharp divide between the two major party candidates was whether there should have been a third person on the debate stage. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is registering in the high single digits in most polls but was excluded from the final debate after failing to reach a 10% threshold.
McAuliffe said his campaign had long welcomed Sarvis' presence.
"We said we'd love to have him from day one," said the Democrat. "We made that clear."
But with Sarvis pulling Republican voters from Cuccinelli in the latest Quinnipiac poll and the attorney general struggling even with his own base, the GOP nominee instead turned the question into a plea for Sarvis' voters and touting his endorsement from former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul.
"In my lifetime in Virginia, I’m the strongest pro-liberty candidate ever elected," boasted Cuccinelli.
This story was originally published on Thu Oct 24, 2013 9:24 PM EDT