BLACKSBURG, Va. — George Allen and Timothy M. Kaine sparred in the final debate of their grueling U.S. Senate contest Thursday night, rebuking each other’s past records and future plans as the wrong prescription for the fiscal woes that ail Virginia and the country.
In a packed auditorium on the Virginia Tech campus, the two men clashed over pending defense cuts, tax policy and the need for bipartisanship in the Senate.
The first skirmish was over Kaine’s service as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a job he took at the request of President Obama.
“I want to be Virginia’s senator. Tim wants to be President Obama’s senator,” Allen said, adding that Virginians “deserve a strong independent voice, not an echo.”
Kaine fired back quickly. “I do not think it is anti-Virginian to support the president of the United States,” Kaine said, noting that he had also worked with President George W. Bush on building rail to Dulles International Airport and in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Kaine also said that Allen had a “double standard” because he served as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
The debate came as nearly every recent poll has shown Kaine clinging to a narrow lead in one of the most anticipated contests this year. Both campaigns think the race is within the margin of error either way, and neither is taking a single vote for granted.
On Thursday night, Kaine criticized Allen’s performance as a senator and suggested that he was more interested in touting his record as governor than his time on Capitol Hill.
“George’s record when he was a United States senator was one of fiscal irresponsibility and harsh partisanship,” Kaine said.
Allen defended his term in the Senate and noted that the unemployment rate and the deficit were lower than they are now.
The debate marked the fifth time the two former governors have debated in the closely watched race to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D). Kaine and Allen squared off in Richmond in December, Hot Springs in July, McLean in September and again in Richmond this month.
The previous debates provided occasional fireworks but no signature moments that altered the basic dynamic of the contest: two candidates with long records, widespread name recognition and strong fundraising chops battling over a state that has tilted repeatedly between red and blue over the past several election cycles.
Another key point of contention Thursday was the defense cuts scheduled to happen in January unless Congress and the White House strike a deal to avert them.
To avoid the spending reductions, Kaine trumpeted his plan to let the Bush era tax cuts expire only on incomes of more than $500,000 — above the $250,000 proposed by the president. “Folks, the time for the show votes and the no-compromise positions is over,” Kaine told the audience.
But Allen said Kaine and other Democrats are using potential cuts as an excuse to increase taxes. The military, Allen said, “should never be used as a political bargaining chip to raise taxes on job-creating small businesses.”
Kaine appeared to take offense, noting that he has a son who is beginning a career in the military.
The mention of the shootings at Virginia Tech arose late in the debate, when Kaine cited the tragedy to explain how Congress and the White House should deal with the recent attack on the U.S. post in Libya. He said officials should figure out why it happened and do whatever is necessary to keep it from happening again.
“We need to take the same model with respect to the attack in Libya,” Kaine said.
Allen said the Libya attack — in which four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, were killed — and the unrest in Egypt were a reminder that the United States should be wary of giving aid to certain countries.
“My general view is that any country that doesn’t protect our embassies [should] not get a penny of American taxpayer dollars,” Allen said.
Combined, Kaine and Allen have raised more than $25 million, and outside groups have poured in at least $26 million to the race, making it the single biggest magnet for outside spending in the country aside from the presidential contest, according to totals maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. Kaine and Allen have raised more than $25 million combined and are on the airwaves through Election Day with ads touting their records and attacking each other. Allen launched a new spot Thursday saying that “Kaine’s solution is to raise taxes,” while Kaine’s latest ad cites Allen’s previous Senate record to argue that electing him again “will make things worse” in Virginia.
The ads reflect the same arguments the men have made repeatedly for more than 18 months: Allen says Kaine will raise taxes and spend irresponsibly, and Kaine says Allen is beholden to anti-tax advocates and has no realistic plan to solve the country’s fiscal problems.
Kaine pledged at Thursday’s debate to join Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on the “Gang of Six” as the bipartisan group seeks a budget deal. Citing Allen’s rhetoric, Kaine said: “We need less of that in Washington, and we need more people who can build bridges.”
Allen said he thought the two parties could work together on comprehensive tax reform — if the plan lowers rates.
“Tim thinks higher taxes are the answer,” Allen said. “I think more jobs, more hiring and more investment [are] the answer.”
Allen and Kaine will appear before a Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce meeting in Norfolk on Friday before splitting up to spend the weekend rallying their respective bases.