7 things to watch for as Allen, Kaine square off in Virginia’s U.S. Senate debate

Republican George Allen and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine will face each other Saturday in their first debate following the primaries in Virginia’s marquee 2012 U.S. Senate race.

The will debate at the tony Homestead resort near the state line with West Virginia.

(Jeffrey MacMillan/For the Washington Post) - U.S. Senate candidates Tim Kaine, right, and George Allen in Reston, Va., on June 28.

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For weeks, the two candidates have been preparing for the face-off, which is sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association. David Hallock, a top aide for Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), has played Allen in mock debates, while Richmond lobbyist Chris Nolen has been standing in as Kaine.

The race — considered one of a handful of contests that would determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate — pits two former governors against each other. Allen defeated three lesser-known candidates to win his party’s primary last month, while Kaine ran unopposed.

It is the second debate between Allen and Kaine, who have been deadlocked in polls for more than a year in a race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. James Webb (D).

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

1. Differences over health-care ruling

The Supreme Court’s decision may be three weeks old, but it’s certain to remain relevant through November.

Allen has said repeatedly that he wants to be “the deciding vote [in the Senate] to repeal Obamacare,” and he may face more questions now about how he would replace the legislation if it is repealed. Kaine supported the law when it passed and praised the court for its decision.

Now, both candidates could be asked whether Virginia should accept federal funds available under the law to expand eligibility for its Medicaid program.

2. The Obama-Romney effect

Given the importance of Virginia to the presidential race, Allen and Kaine could be asked to weigh in on the issues dominating that contest.

Allen could be queried about GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s tenure with Bain Capital, and about whether Romney should release additional tax returns.

Kaine could face questions about the Obama campaign’s controversial assertion that Romney might have committed a felony by incorrectly filling out some financial forms regarding Bain. And the Democrat could be asked about President Obama’s remarks on whether entrepreneurs build small businesses on their own or with help from the government.

3. ‘Macaca’ alert

Six years after Allen lobbed what some considered a racial slur at an Indian American campaign staffer for his then-Senate campaign opponent, the issue keeps coming back.

Allen has apologized repeatedly for the remark, saying he has learned from the experience. In their first debate, Kaine said he gave Allen credit for apologizing, but he also said the apology had fallen short because it was part of a pattern for Allen and “part of the divisive politics that we’ve got to put behind us in this country.’’

Allen may be asked about the issue again or Kaine may be asked if it matters anymore.

4. Jens Soering’s case

Kaine has been questioned repeatedly about his handling of the case of convicted murderer and former University of Virginia honors student Jens Soering.

Soering, the son of a German diplomat, was convicted in Bedford County of two counts of first-degree murder in the 1985 killings of his girlfriend’s parents in a case that made international headlines.

In one of his last acts as governor, Kaine requested that Soering be allowed to serve time in his native Germany. But in one of his first decisions, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reversed that decision.

Kaine has said Germany, not Virginia, should pay for Soering’s incarceration. But Republicans have continued to hammer Kaine for failing to explain his reasons for requesting the transfer.

5. Debate packaging

Kaine, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Allen, a former senator, have both had considerable practice with debates and public speeches, though Kaine is considered by some to be the more polished debater. Kaine appeared more relaxed in the first debate while Allen seemed more rattled. In an apparent gaffe, Allen seemed not to understand how birth-control pills work.

Both candidates are looking to be aggressive in their first debate since the general election campaign launched, but also calm and conciliatory. Expect a lot of smiles.

6. Defense cuts

Unless Congress and the White House strike a deal by Jan. 2, the Pentagon — a key economic engine in Virginia — will cut more than $50 billion in spending.

Allen, like many fellow Republicans, has sought to blame the impending cuts on Democrats, imploring them to help approve legislation that would stop the cuts. A majority of Republicans in Congress, and in the Virginia delegation, had voted for the deal that could lead to the cuts.

Kaine has said he wants to “keep pressure on Congress to do their job” by striking a broader spending agreement, rather than just protecting against cuts in defense. If spending cuts happen, he wants the Pentagon to decide how to implement them.

7. Expiring tax cuts

Allen and Kaine will probably be queried about the looming expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, a subject on which they disagree.

Kaine differs somewhat with Obama on this topic. While the president has called for allowing the cuts to expire on all income above $250,000 per year, Kaine wants to move the bar higher, to $500,000. But both generally agree that tax rates on the wealthiest Americans should go up to help reduce the budget deficit.

Allen, like most Republicans, believes that all the tax cuts — which he supported when he served in the Senate — should be extended, arguing that any increases could hurt a still-recovering economy.

 
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