In Last Face-Off, Candidates Drive Home Familiar Points

By Michael D. Shear and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 10, 2005

RICHMOND, Oct. 9 -- Virginia's major-party candidates for governor began their final, 30-day sprint to the finish line Sunday night, facing each other on statewide television in a final debate that served more as a summary of previous campaigning than a springboard for new ideas.

Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine exchanged sound-bite answers to 32 rapid-fire questions from the moderator, a panel of reporters and voters whose queries were e-mailed before the debate.

Although each emphasized his experience in public office and sought to cast his opponent as unfit to serve, neither broke new ground. Instead, they stuck to carefully scripted words honed over more than a year of campaigning.

Kilgore said Kaine, the lieutenant governor, was a "mediocre mayor" of Richmond, and he repeatedly called the Democrat a liberal who would raise taxes if elected.

"Tim Kaine is going to raise the gas tax," Kilgore said several times. "I'll be a governor that will not raise the gas tax."

Kaine said Kilgore, the former attorney general, "can't be trusted" to lead the state because of his opposition to the administration of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in the past four years. Several times, he accused Kilgore of "making stuff up" during the debate and in his campaign ads.

"You're not fit to be governor if you make stuff up on this stage," Kaine said.

The third and final debate of the 2005 campaign season had the feel of a NASCAR race: The questions in the hour-long debate were short and the answers even shorter as the candidates raced against the clock. Moderator Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor, said the candidates were asked a record number of questions.

Unlike last month's debate at the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, where Kilgore's performance was panned, both candidates in Sunday night's debate were crisp, aggressive and on message.

Topics ranged from gay adoption, abortion and oil drilling in and near the Chesapeake Bay to Hurricane Katrina, public education and transportation projects. Political observers said the debate had the potential to sharpen and focus the campaign as it winds down before the Nov. 8 election.

"We have two very different candidates, and that is what they are going to highlight until the election," Sabato said. "I think we're headed for low turnout, which means that each campaign is going to aim for its base."

Four years ago at this point, Warner held a double-digit lead over his Republican opponent, Mark L. Earley. But this time, both sides agree, the race is much closer.

Kilgore's aides have made it clear that they intend to spend the final month painting Kaine as a liberal on guns, abortion, taxes and the death penalty. Kaine's aides said they will continue to associate their candidate with Warner and attack Kilgore's ability to lead.

Both candidates used the debate to highlight those themes.

On the death penalty, for example, Sabato asked the candidates about the slaying of Richmond college student Taylor Marie Behl. Kilgore called the death of Behl, who lived in Vienna, "a heinous crime that deserves our ultimate penalty" and said Kaine "has spent a lifetime of activism campaigning against the death penalty."

Kaine said that as a Catholic, he opposes the death penalty but would "put his hand on a Bible" and enforce his oath of office.

Kaine repeatedly mentioned Virginia's ranking by Governing magazine as "the best-managed state in the nation" and accused Kilgore of opposing the tax compromise last year that ended the state's long budget stalemate.

"We made a hard decision to reform our tax code," Kaine said. "My opponent stood against us every step of the way as we tried to save our bond rating and invest in our schoolchildren."

Both pledged to get major transportation projects underway. Kilgore vowed to phase out the car tax; Kaine said he and Warner had already tried to do that. Kaine promised that at least 50 percent of his ads during the next month will be positive, though in Richmond one of his negative ads ran immediately after the debate; Kilgore refused to make the promise.

"I'll make the pledge to stand by my ads," Kilgore said.

On illegal immigrants, Kaine said he is "deeply opposed to illegal immigration," but he added that Herndon's Town Council was within its rights to finance a day-laborer site. "They should do what they think is best," he said.

Kilgore, who opposed Herndon's efforts, responded: "There he goes. He does want to spend state dollars on those illegally in this country. Mr. Kaine, I ask you, what part of illegal don't we understand?"

Kilgore once again refused to say whether he would sign a bill outlawing abortion if given the chance by the U.S. Supreme Court. Kaine called Kilgore's proposal to allow exceptions for rape and incest victims only if they report their crimes within a week "a heartless policy and a wrong way to go."

The campaign to lead Virginia has captivated the national political parties, which have both poured millions of dollars into the candidates. The campaign in Virginia and a governor's race in New Jersey are the only major elections this year.

But the campaigns do not seem to have captured the attention of most Virginia voters. Longtime political observers said they see fewer yard signs this year than in previous campaigns. The two previous debates were not broadcast widely on television, so few people saw them.

Sunday's debate almost didn't take place.

A spat over whether video clips from the debate could be used in upcoming television commercials almost derailed the event. In the end, Kaine agreed not to use any footage in ads, but he said he did so "under protest."

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent, also tried to stop the debate, which was sponsored by the Center for Politics and NBC-12 in Richmond. He filed a lawsuit in federal court last week seeking to be included or to have the debate postponed. The judge denied his case.

A few hours before the debate, Kaine sought to energize a pre-debate rally by separating himself from Kilgore's stances on last year's tax fight.

"This is an important election. . . . This is a clear choice," Kaine said to calls of "We won't go back!" from the crowd.

In an e-mail after the debate, Kilgore declared himself the winner and expressed confidence about a victory.

"Never before have the two major parties nominated two more different candidates," Kilgore said in the statement. "As one newspaper put it earlier this year, voters will have a choice between a classic conservative and a classic liberal."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company