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Debating debates

Ready for some really inside baseball?
 
There’s a debate about debates going on in the Virginia governor’s race. But now there’s even a debate over the debating about debates.
 
After the Times-Dispatch asked Democrat Terry McAuliffe Monday in Richmond whether he objected to a candidate-to-candidate question component with Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the upcoming Virginia Bar Association debate July 20, McAuliffe tried to dismiss the issue as “silly.”
 
McAuliffe said he was leaving the issue up to his staff.  “I’ve got big issues that I focus on every single day,” he said following a tour of the Shockoe Bottom offices of the entrepreneurial organization New Richmond Ventures.
 
“And to have a debate on debates, when we are facing such huge challenges, I find silly.”
 
McAuliffe’s failure to answer the question directly gave way to another round of partisan pounding on the issue by Cuccinelli’s campaign, which all but accused McAuliffe of being a scaredy cat when it comes to facing the attorney general.
 
“Terry is Either Scared or Being Badly Misled,” trumpeted an email blast from the Virginia GOP caucus. And  Republicans later followed up with a conference call scheduled to touch on the topic.
 
At least one observer, however, thinks McAuliffe could potentially be helped by a strong debate performance.

 
In a recent interview University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato said that “solid, serious debate performances” would help McAuliffe shed some of his showman image and “better reflect what Virginians expect to see in their governor.”
 
But Sabato also observed: “One gets the sense that McAuliffe’s very nervous about debates, fearing that Cuccinelli’s experience and skills will show him up.” 
 
Naturally, the two camps are already at war over the number of debates they should have, with Cuccinelli pitching for 15 debates and McAuliffe’s camp saying five is plenty — and more in line with past practice in gubernatorial elections.
 
As for format, it is still up for negotiation between the campaigns, according to Marilyn Shaw of the Virginia Bar Association, which will host the first formal debate between the candidates on July 20 during the VBA’s summer meeting at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs.
 
“The Virginia Bar Association wants to put on the best possible debate, and format will be finalized when everybody agrees,” said Shaw. At last year’s U.S. Senate debate at the VBA meeting, the format allowed each candidate to ask a question of the other.  
 
Before the candidates convene at the Homestead, they will be together this week at the Northern Virginia Technology Forum in Reston this Thursday. The forum will not be a debate. Both men will appear together to make opening remarks, followed by a question and answer session for each candidate from a panel and the audience.