Cuccinelli and McAuliffe debate higher education in Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe dutifully brought their gubernatorial campaigns one-after-the-other into the classroom of one of the few teachers who can command such in-demand politicians: former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Cuccinelli unfurled a proposed package of higher education reforms to Wilder's advanced government and politics class at Virginia Commonwealth University.

McAuliffe regaled them with his well-worn spiel about economic development starting with the driveway-sealing business he started as a 14-year-old in upstate New York, then tore into Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli, the current attorney general, lamented tuition increases, particularly in response to questions from Jurriaan K. Van Den Hurk, a 21-year-old senior from the Netherlands who said he struggles with college loan debt, which has forced some of his friends to drop out of college.

"One of my great concerns is that higher ed has been priced out of the reach of middle-class families," Cuccinelli told two dozen students in the late Thursday afternoon class.

He said he would support boosting tuition assistance grants the state provides for students attending private Virginia colleges and universities. He also espoused creating low-cost four-year degree paths for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, and cracking down on campus sexual assaults, particularly among friends or acquaintances.

"What I find is sexual assault, particularly among people who know one another, is an epidemic at all of our universities. And it's awfully quiet sometimes. I understand why, but we need to do everything we can to eliminate it," said Cuccinelli, whose campaign is trying to close a significant advantage that polling late last month showed McAuliffe holds among female voters.

McAuliffe, who appeared after Cuccinelli, contrasted himself with his conservative opponent, particularly on the issue of whether to expand Medicaid in Virginia as a component of the federal Affordable Care Act that takes effect in January. McAuliffe strongly advocates expansion, Cuccinelli has resisted it.

"For Medicaid expansion, we as Virginians are going to spend $26 billion out of our pocket the next 10 years and give it to Washington. Why? Why would we not bring that money back to Virginia?" McAuliffe said.

Medicaid expansion in Virginia, advocates say, could extend the federal-state partnership that helps pay for health care for the needy, aged, blind and disabled, to about 400,000 additional uninsured Virginians just above the federal poverty level. Expansion in Virginia is on hold until or unless a panel comprised of state legislators affirms that several rigorous cost-saving and efficiency reforms have been achieved.

McAuliffe also pivoted to attack Cuccinelli as a strident conservative ideologue whose hostility toward gay rights and abortion would dissuade businesses from expanding in Virginia.

"We cannot be shutting down these women's health centers," he said, referring to a hard stance Cuccinelli took as attorney general with the State Board of Health, forcing it to retreat on a proposed regulations that would have exempted existing abortion clinics from a new state law that forces clinics that perform abortions to meet the same design standards as hospitals. The law has forced some clinics to close.

After each candidate's appearance, Wilder discussed each candidate's performance and dissected policy positions. Reporters watched, aware of the political premium the nation's first elected African-American governor still carries. There's no guarantee that the unpredictable Wilder, a Democrat, will endorse his party's candidate, particularly since Cuccinelli served as a governor's intern during Wilder's term 20 years ago.

Wilder laughed off one television reporter's question about whom he might endorse.

"I am the teacher here today - the pro-fess-or," Wilder said, accenting each syllable of the word for comedic effect.

Afterward, he said he intends to make an endorsement in the campaign's remaining 60 days, but would not say when.

"I've just got to look at things and see what's going on," he said. "But I will say something."