Cuccinelli, trailing in the polls, said he was "the only candidate in this race with a lifetime of fighting for Virginians ... who won’t need on-the-job training."

He later went after McAuliffe's business dealings. "If Terry becomes governor, we’ll have to change the state's motto from 'sic semper tyrannis' to 'quid pro quo,'" he joked.

"Terry sold more visas to Chinese citizens as part of GreenTech than his failed company has sold cars," he said at a later point.

McAuliffe's retorts focused largely on Cuccinelli's unbending social conservatism.

"There are consequences to this mean-spirit attack on women's health, on gay Virginians," he said at one point. He later attacked Cuccinelli for backing a "personhood amendment" in the state that he said would ban some forms of contraception.

The debate produced no obvious gaffe or clear game-changing moment. Cuccinelli, trailing in every poll, will have to find another way to change the race's dynamics in his favor.