RICHMOND, Dec. 8 -- The two men running for governor in Virginia faced each other Wednesday in the first debate of the 2005 election season, both claiming the high ground on values and leadership and providing an early glimpse of their campaign themes.
In a testy exchange before state Capitol reporters, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore repeatedly criticized each other's record to highlight what they said were their own strengths.
Kaine accused Kilgore of looking the other way as Republican Party officials violated eavesdropping laws two years ago. He also said several times that Kilgore attempted to "torpedo" the 2004 budget deal that raised taxes and increased spending on state services.
"At the end of the day, leaders led and chickens ducked," Kaine said. "The election is really about whether we return to the [Republican Gov. James S.] Gilmore era of fiscal irresponsibility and bitter partisanship or whether we stick with the [Democratic Gov. Mark R.] Warner era of bipartisanship and fiscal responsibility."
Kilgore described Kaine as "an ACLU lawyer" who supports gun control, represented death row escapees and sought higher taxes than those approved this year by the General Assembly.
"Virginia voters will learn he was an ACLU lawyer. They'll learn that he not only opposes the death penalty but actually represented death row inmates," Kilgore said in the debate, moderated by University of Virginia politics professor Larry J. Sabato. "They will learn that he is against the Second Amendment. They will learn that he opposed our efforts to end the barbaric practice known as partial birth abortion. I welcome the debate . . . about, yes, Virginia values."
Kilgore's campaign spokeswoman later issued a statement saying Kaine had attempted to "run from his vast liberal alliance."
Sabato said that both men appeared headed firmly toward a "nasty, negative" campaign. And he predicted that both would raise enough money to effectively exploit what each perceives as his opponent's weaknesses.
"Kaine must . . . go after Kilgore's vulnerabilities as a representative of the very conservative House of Delegates . . . and frame the election as Warner's second term," Sabato said after the debate. "Kilgore . . . intends to demonstrate that Kaine is too liberal for Virginia and that he is much closer to the ideological center of Virginia."
Kilgore's campaign had threatened to back out of the debate if the candidates were allowed to question each other directly, as originally proposed by the Virginia Associated Press Managing Editors association, the debate's sponsor. The organizers relented, and questions were posed only by Sabato and reporters.
The issue flared when Kaine broke the rules and asked Kilgore, "Why are you afraid to answer my questions today?"
"I'm not afraid of the lieutenant governor, nor am I afraid to lead," Kilgore responded sharply.
Most of the debate, which ran 1 1/2 hours, offered the two candidates a chance to test messages.
Kaine repeatedly returned to Kilgore's actions after his office learned that Edmund A. Matricardi III, former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, had eavesdropped on Democratic conference calls. Kaine cited depositions released this week that showed Kilgore had cut off his chief of staff during a phone conversation before she could inform him about the eavesdropping.