McAuliffe, Cuccinelli, Sarvis spar over abortion, gay rights, guns

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, left, shakes the hand of Republican challenger Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, right, after a debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Democrat Terry McAuliffe cast rival Republican Ken Cuccinelli as an uncompromising social crusader and the GOP nominee for governor didn't dispute the characterization during a joint appearance Saturday.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli traded barbs on abortion rights, gay rights and guns during a forum that also included libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. The very deep differences between the candidates were on full display with little more than a week before voters in Virginia elect their next governor.

"We need to make sure Virginia is open and welcoming to everyone," McAuliffe said, suggesting Cuccinelli's rhetoric toward gays and women would frighten business away.

Cuccinelli said his views on the topics come from his personal beliefs and people are free to disagree with them. He also suggested some parts of his record have been distorted for political gain from his opponent.

"I hear all the time complaints that people don't like the negative campaigning. I don't either," Cuccinelli said.

The negative tilt of the campaign has been especially brutal on Cuccinelli. Last week, he was outspent on the air by a 10-to-1 margin and the coming week looks just as lopsided. Polling shows Cuccinelli slipping and his efforts to woo moderate and female voters has dropped as a priority in the final days.

Instead, Cuccinelli is working to win over social conservatives, whom he believes will fuel a come-from-behind victory, by talking about his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. He also is taking issue with McAullife's support for tougher background checks before someone can buy a gun.

"I love children and I think we ought to have a governor who loves our children," Cuccinelli said.

McAuliffe called the rhetoric unconvincing: "We all love children. But there are big issues we have to deal with."

Sarvis, the libertarian candidate who is emerging as a spoiler among Republican voters, said the discussion of social issues distracts from the economic challenges facing Virginia. He said he would run a state that is "open-minded and open for business."

The animosity between the major-party candidates has been on display in recent days, first at a debate Thursday at Virginia Tech and a Friday forum organized by the state NAACP, where the candidates passed each other without exchanging a handshake.

Cuccinelli has called McAuliffe a policy lightweight, "all puppy, no plan."

McAuliffe finds that analogy particularly amusing.

"I'm as loveable as a little puppy," he said Saturday.

Neither candidate is treating the race as settled. McAuliffe is schedule to campaign with former President Bill Clinton, a longtime pal, starting Sunday.

On Monday, Cuccinelli is set to visit the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University with tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. On Tuesday, Cuccinelli is set to appear with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.