Cuccinelli, McAuliffe headed for televised debate Wednesday

Tonight’s Virginia gubernatorial debate between Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli and Democratic counterpart Terry McAuliffe could and should be a testament to cautious but concerted avoidance.

Avoid the gaffe. Avoid the deer-in-the headlights moment.

In a race as close as this one, with McAuliffe a slight leader in most polls, a lead that’s even more pronounced among women, there’s little room for error when the pace of televised campaign ads already has picked up now that the election is a little more than a month away.

That’s the word from many of the state’s more astute political observers concerning the one-hour affair (7-8 p.m., NBC4) sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, moderated by NBC's Chuck Todd and being held at the Capital One Conference Center in McLean.

“McAuliffe has to be gubernatorial, with a bit of gravitas, and cannot repeat some of flip and complacent comments made to the NOVA Technology Council,” former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth says, referring to less-than-comprehensive answers McAuliffe provided the business group, which wound up endorsing Cuccinelli. “Cuccinelli has to reverse his slide among women and counter the negative ads that are taking such a toll.”

Adds Mark Rozell, Dean of George Mason University’s Center for Public Policy: “McAuliffe, bluntly put, will need to demonstrate that he knows this state well enough to govern it. . . In the debate, he needs to do whatever possible to allay the ongoing concerns that he is not driven by the needs of the state and local issues so much as by a personal ambition drawn from years in national level politics.”

And Cuccinelli?

“Cuccinelli needs to use the occasion of the debate to showcase that he is about much more than ideological orthodoxy,” Rozell says, “and that he is knowledgeable about local issues in Northern Virginia, given his years as a local elected state legislator.”

University of Mary Washington political expert Stephen Farnsworth simply hopes the expected careful treading of the two candidates leads to a more substantive debate.

“The state’s voters desperately need further discussion of issues in the campaign, and since moderate voters decide these elections, the debates can be a great opportunity for the candidates to change the narrative,” he says. “Whether they will abandon the personal attacks that have dominated the race so far remains to be seen -- those attacks energize the base voters on both sides but don’t do much for the undecided voters.”

That may, however, be wishful thinking, according to Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“Given the fact that he is behind, Cuccinelli has no choice but to be aggressive in his attacks on McAuliffe,” Sabato says. “He also wants to demonstrate his superior knowledge of state government -- and hope that McAuliffe makes some factual errors in the same realm.”

His advice for McAuliffe is straightforward.

“He needs to stay sober and serious -- all the while keeping up the so-far effective attacks on Cuccinelli as an extreme Tea Party candidate,” Sabato says. “Truth is, his lead comes from many voters' rejection of Cuccinelli, not their embrace of McAuliffe.”

Bottom line: This is an extremely important debate.

Or not.

“Unless somebody really screws up, I've never believed debate performances drove a lot of votes,” says veteran state and national Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who’s not actively working for either campaign but supports his personal friend Cuccinelli. “I was at all but one of the Democratic Presidential Primary debates in 2008. If debates meant a lot, Al Sharpton would be President.”