(CNN) – Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell should consider resigning in the face of federal and state investigations into lavish gifts he and his family received from a wealthy executive, the two men running to succeed McDonnell said during a debate Saturday.
Neither of the candidates, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, issued an outright call for McDonnell to leave office when asked about the controversy by the debate’s moderator. But both said he should at least contemplate stepping down.
“While that question is appropriate to ask Gov. McDonnell, and it is appropriate to ask him to think about that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask for the sitting attorney general to address it when I started one of the investigations,” Cuccinelli said.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he was reluctant to “pre-judge” the ongoing investigations before all the facts are known, but added: “I would agree with the attorney general that he should consider it.”
The two candidates are now the most prominent political leaders in the state to suggest McDonnell, a Republican, should consider resigning. Term limits in Virginia prevent McDonnell from running for re-election.
State and federal investigators are looking into McDonnell’s relationship with Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a troubled nutritional supplement company called Star Scientific who provided the governor and his family with almost $150,000 in previously undisclosed gifts, including a Rolex watch, a Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, and a high-dollar payment to a company owned by McDonnell.
The 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association, took place at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia and was moderated by PBS anchor Judy Woodruff.
In the first face-to-face meeting between the two, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe traded blows over familiar campaign themes. Recent polls suggest the race is neck-and-neck, though many voters are still unfamiliar with the candidates and their positions.
McAuliffe repeatedly hammered Cuccinelli as a dangerous conservative ideologue who would scare off potential investors and rattle Virginia’s influential business community.
“Ken, you are a true Trojan horse of Virginia politics,” he said. “You come in pretending to be one thing, and really are something else.”
Cuccinelli sought to paint McAuliffe, a prodigious Democratic fundraiser and confidante for former President Bill Clinton, as a deal-making Washington insider and failed businessman who wants to raise taxes on Virginians.
“I’ll be a governor who fights for the middle class and not the well-connected or the influence peddlers,” Cuccinelli said.
The Republican landed an early blow against McAuliffe on the matter of GreenTech Automotive, a struggling electric car company the Democrat founded, but resigned from last year.
McAuliffe has pointed to the company as an example of his private sector savvy, but Cuccinelli drew attention to the fact that GreenTech chose to set up manufacturing operations in Mississippi instead of Virginia.
“You picked Mississippi, so run for governor of Mississippi,” Cuccinelli said pointedly, drawing snickers from the crowd.
But it was Cuccinelli who spent most of the debate on defense, awkwardly fielding questions about his staunchly conservative social views, his opposition to a landmark transportation compromise in Richmond and his ties to Williams, the controversial donor entangled with McDonnell.
Cuccinelli owned stock in Williams’ company, but sold off his shares earlier this year. He also collected more than $18,000 in gifts from the executive and stayed at his vacation house on Smith Mountain Lake.
McAuliffe accused the attorney general of providing Williams with special favors in return for gifts — a blatant “quid pro quo,” McAuliffe charged.
An ethics investigation into Cuccinelli and Williams cleared the attorney general of any wrongdoing this week, but revealed as a footnote that Cuccinelli put the executive in touch with an attorney who could help him win grants from a state agency.
Cuccinelli’s avowed social conservatism also consumed much of the debate, as when Woodruff asked the Republican about a past remark that “same-sex acts are against nature and are harmful to society.”
Cuccinelli stood by the comment. “My personal beliefs about the personal challenge of homosexuality haven’t changed,” he said.