RICHMOND, Va. — Eleven months before Election Day, former Virginia Govs. Tim Kaine and George Allen met today for the first debate in their race for an open Senate seat, which will help decide the Senate majority in 2013.
Standing behind podiums in the pristine and newly built basement of the historic state Capitol on Associated Press Day, the candidates, who have been tied in the polls for the past six months, sparred on their records, tax policies, energy and health care and made clear what both plan to make the race about.
Kaine repeatedly chastised Allen for supporting increased spending during his one term in the Senate, which ended in 2006 when he lost to now-Sen. Jim Webb (D), who is retiring. And Allen took every opportunity to tie Kaine, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to President Barack Obama’s agenda.
The first sharp elbow was thrown on the third question, when Kaine was asked whether Allen’s use of the term “macaca” when describing an Indian-American video tracker during his 2006 re-election campaign — something he’s since apologized for — should be brought up nearly six years later. Kaine campaign officials said Tuesday that it was fair game, and Kaine did not back down from that position.
“The implication was that this young student was less of an American than George or than you and me,” Kaine said. “I don’t know why he would say that, but for whatever reason he said it, it’s part of the divisive politics that we have to put behind us in this country.”
Given the opportunity to ask Allen a question, Kaine asked why he voted to increase his Senate pay four times. Following an answer to a question about his support for a fair tax in which Allen rambled some, Kaine said that Allen’s answer “was equally complicated” as the tax code and that Allen’s reluctance to pin himself to an exact percentage was “instructive.”
After Allen declined to say whether he would join Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six,” Kaine said Allen “wouldn’t do it” because he signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge. “That is the kind of a handcuff that nobody in elected office should put themselves in, frankly, I don’t think, before they take the oath of office,” Kaine said.
Allen asked Kaine why he spent the final year of his gubernatorial term serving as DNC chairman — “the most political, partisan job in America,” as Allen put it — rather than focusing on the needs of Virginia. Kaine’s answer: “To serve the president, the president who is our commander in chief, the president who helped capture [Osama] bin Laden and wipe out al-Qaida leadership.”
Allen also touted the job growth during his own term as governor in the mid-1990s and railed against the jobs lost and increased debt since the economic stimulus plan was passed shortly after Obama took office.
“That’s not the prescription for success for families and small businesses in our country,” Allen said. “We need a different approach — a positive, constructive, proven one.”
Following Kaine’s defense of the stimulus, Allen held up a bar graph showing the increasing debt in the few years before and after Obama took office.
“Higher spending, higher unemployment, more burdensome regulations and taxes are not working,” Allen said. “What we need to do is reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit of our country, and I look forward to fighting for the voices and values of Virginians once again.”
The candidates at times butted in during the other’s answers, most notably when Kaine took exception to Allen’s description of his role as DNC chairman as “advocating for the likes of ... President Obama’s policies” rather than focusing on Virginia’s interests.
“The likes of President Obama?” Kaine asked, as the two talked over each other. “Wiping out al-Qaida, stopping the Iraq War, saving the auto industry. That’s not being consistent with Virginia’s interests? I see it differently than you do.”
That developed into a brief debate over the auto bailout and the role of government in such matters before the moderator broke up the back-and-forth. But Kaine’s vigorous defense of Obama made it clear that he will not back down from ties to a president whose approval ratings in Virginia have hovered in the low 40s.
Although this was a general election debate, Kaine and Allen must first win their respective primaries, though both are the overwhelming favorites. Several Republicans were not able to participate in the debate, hosted by the Virginia AP Managing Editors and the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association, as they did not meet the eligibility guidelines. To participate, candidates needed to have earned 15 percent or better in primary polls and raised at least 20 percent as much money as their party’s frontrunner by the end of October, according to the AP.
About a dozen tea party protesters lined up on the sidewalk on the south side of the Capitol, and Richmond tea party leader and Senate candidate Jamie Radtke released a statement criticizing Allen at the conclusion of the debate, which was streamed live on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website.