McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are each trying to gain the high ground on environment and energy policies.
Tomorrow night candidates in Virginia's governor's race will face off in a televised debate, and with just six weeks left before Election Day, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli sure to try to draw sharp contrasts with one another.
One are where those contrasts may come into sharp relief is on environmental and energy policies. From coal to climate change, both candidates are launching attacks based on their opponent's previous environmental positions.
For most of his time in state government—including in his current job as Virginia's attorney general—Cuccinelli has made little secret of his skepticism about the science of climate change, and he has repeatedly pushed back against government environmental regulations.
Cuccinelli has challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health and was successful in his effort to block federal regulation of storm water runoff. Cuccinelli also filed a lawsuit against a former University of Virginia climate scientist. That case was dismissed by a judge, but the suit became the focus of a campaign ad from his Democratic opponent.
"Ken Cuccinelli used taxpayer funds to investigate a University of Virginia professor who's research on climate change Cuccinelli opposed," says the ad.
Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation voters, says supporting McAuliffe is a no-brainer for his group. "He understands the importance of climate change, and even that climate change is happening—which isn't something you can say about Ken Cuccinelli," he says.
But while environmental groups may line up behind McAuliffe, some of the Democrat's previous positions on environmental issues may prove to be a liability as well.
Republicans hammer McAuliffe for his leadership of GreenTech, an electric-car company now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Cuccinelli campaign is also using McAuliffe's previous statements about coal power in its own political ad: "It's a war on the working poor, our livelihood. Now, Terry McAuliffe wants to lead the attack: 'We have got to move past coal. As Governor, I never want another coal plant built,'" says the ad.
The National Mining Association ranks Virginia twelfth among states for coal production, and the Cuccinelli campaign argues that a reduction in coal mining would have dire economic consequences for the commonwealth.
McAuliffe's campaign did not respond to a request for interview for this story.
The Obama administration's recent announcement of tougher EPA regulations for coal-fired power plants has put even more pressure on McAuliffe to clarify his position.
Lisa Camooso Miller of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity says coal power isn't just important for the parts of Virginia that currently have plants. "A third of Virginia's energy comes from coal, and their electricity is also the twenty-third lowest in the country—so it's not just providing electricity, it's also keep their prices low," she says.
Political science professor Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says voters are likely to see both candidates—formerly strident on environmental and energy issues—continue to move to the political center during this week's debate.
"The McAuliffe of 2013 is likely to be more moderate than the McAuliffe of the past, just because he's trying to win those centrist voters. Similarly, Cuccinelli is more likely to paint himself as an attorney general who's gone after polluters rather than an attorney general who's gone after a climate scientist, a former colleague at UVA," he says.
With just six weeks left before Election Day and polls showing a very close race, those centrist votes still up for grabs could be the key to victory.