Allen, Kaine debate could shape their strategies

December 5, 2011

Republican George Allen and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine will square off Wednesday in their first debate of Virginia’s marquee 2012 U.S. Senate race.

The election, which probably will feature the two former governors, could be one of a handful of competitive contests next year that will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The two candidates will debate for 90 minutes at AP Day at the Capitol in Richmond, an annual event sponsored by the Virginia Associated Press Media Editors and the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association.

Allen and Kaine are not the only candidates in the race, but the other six did not meet the qualifications: averaging 15 percent or better in published, non-candidate primary polls; and raising at least 20 percent as much money as his or her party’s front-runner.

Four others — businessmen Tim Donner, lawyer David McCormick, Bishop E.W. Jackson and tea party activist Jamie Rad­tke — are competing in the Republican primary. Two others — Julien Modica, a health-care company executive, and Courtney Lynch, founding partner of a consulting firm — are running in the Democratic primary.

Here’s what to watch for in Wednesday’s debate:

Can Allen keep his cool?

Allen has worked to overcome his 2006 infamous flub when he called his opponent’s Indian-American campaign volunteer a “macaca” — an ethnic slur in some cultures. He has repeatedly apologized for his remarks and has been willing to speak about formerly off-limit topics, such as his Jewish heritage. Since the campaign began, there have been flashes of the old Allen. (He promised Republicans once to knock Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whiny throats.”) But for the most part Allen has tried to be much more conciliatory.

How closely will Kaine be tied to President Obama?

Obama won’t just be at the top of the ballot next year; he’ll also play a crucial role in the Senate race. As Obama’s friend, ally and hand-picked Democratic National Committee chairman, Kaine is inexorably linked to the president’s agenda — for better or worse. Will Kaine be asked to defend Obama’s stimulus and health-care plans? What about more recent issues such as Obama’s decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline that Allen supports? Kaine’s handling of those questions will shed light on his campaign strategy going forward.

Which parts of their resumes will Kaine and Allen emphasize?

Allen and Kaine are both former Virginia governors, and they probably won’t hesitate to remind you during the debate — citing what they accomplished during their time in charge of the state. But what might they say about their most recent jobs? Kaine doesn’t often talk on the campaign trail about his service as DNC chairman, and Allen makes relatively few references to the record he amassed during his six years in the Senate, or his time as a consultant since leaving office.

Is it just the economy, stupid?

Across Virginia and the nation, polls clearly show the economy and job creation are voters’ number-one priority by a wide margin. So even though Virginia’s economy and unemployment rate are in better shape than those of most other states, you can expect a healthy dose of economic talk during the debate. But a host of non-economic topics — from abortion-clinic regulations and gun laws to offshore oil exploration and climate change — could spark fireworks between the two candidates.

Their pet issues

Allen and Kaine will have opportunities to turn the debate back to their pet issues. (Think Herman Cain and 9-9-9). Voters will not only get their first inkling of them but also will hear Allen and Kaine asking a pair of questions of each other, shedding light about what their strategies will be going forward. Will Allen try to tie Kaine to big labor? Will Kaine try to paint Allen as a man politician who talked about cutting spending, but actually increased it? Both men are expected to easily defeat their primary opponents, but both still must decide whether he will be speaking to a primary or general election audience.

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