By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; C01
HOT SPRINGS, Va., July 22 -- Sen. George Allen and his Democratic challenger, James Webb, faced each other Saturday in the first debate of the Virginia general election campaign, clashing over the war in Iraq but finding common ground in their affection for former president Ronald Reagan.
Webb, wearing the combat boots that have come to define the former Marine's nontraditional campaign, and Allen, dressed in the cowboy boots that are part of his political persona, laid out the themes they plan to highlight in the fall campaign.
"I would like to ask the people of Virginia, 'Is the country better off than it was six years ago' " when Allen was elected to the Senate? Webb asked. "Are we more respected around the world? Is our economy truly fairer to all Americans? Is your job secure? . . . I would like to offer a fresh set of eyes to the problems that face us."
Allen portrayed himself as a leader interested in fighting terrorism, promoting "Virginia values" and cutting taxes. He also made clear his reluctance to criticize President Bush, who polls show is declining in popularity in Virginia.
"I know it's easy to kick a friend when he's down. I am not going to kick a friend when he's down," Allen said.
Webb was an early and outspoken critic of Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "We made a strategic error by occupying a country in that part of the world," he said. "This is an issue where there was a lack of foresight."
Allen, a former governor who is considering a run for president in 2008, backed the decision to go to war. "9/11 changed everything," Allen said. "We were hit here in Virginia, at the Pentagon. They wanted to hit Washington, D.C. . . . The decision was, do you sit back and do nothing? . . . No, that would only embolden them. I thought we needed to go on offense."
Both candidates said they would like to see U.S. troops leave Iraq. But neither offered a timetable.
"I do not think we should tuck tail, run and surrender," Allen said.
Allen supports building permanent U.S. bases in Iraq that one day could be turned over to Iraqis. Webb criticized that idea, saying Iraq won't be secure until U.S. troops leave.
After the debate, Webb said he thinks that with the right leadership, U.S. troops could leave Iraq in about two years.
Webb, who served as Navy secretary under Reagan and only recently became a Democrat, said during the debate that Reagan had an administration that "really worked."
"Ronald Reagan was a true leader," he said.
Allen then spoke of his fondness for the former president, admiring his efforts to stand up to communism.
The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association at the Homestead resort, was an early test for Webb. A newcomer to electoral politics, he is looking to prove that he has the stature and knowledge to stay competitive with Allen, who has a huge fundraising advantage. On June 30, Allen had $6.6 million, compared with Webb's $424,000.
Webb spent much of his money during the spring primary against former lobbyist Harris Miller. During that race, Webb showed himself to be a blunt talker on some issues but unsure on others.
During the debate, Allen tried to needle Webb, a novelist who has also worked on feature films in Hollywood. Allen spoke of pursuing "Virginia values" instead of "Hollywood values" and made several references to Webb's writing career.
At one point, in reference to a question about the Guantanamo Bay prison, Webb spoke of a book he wrote that mentioned detainees after World War II. Allen responded by saying that he had visited Guantanamo Bay. "That is the real world. That is not a book," Allen said.
Allen's campaign had said it wanted to highlight Webb's lack of knowledge on issues facing Virginia.
A half-hour into the debate, Allen caught the challenger off guard by asking him a question that forced Webb to admit he was unfamiliar with Portsmouth's Craney Island, which consists of dredged material that officials hope to turn into a cargo terminal.
"Craney Island is in Virginia," said Allen, who then lectured Webb about the site. "I got it, George. I got it, George," Webb responded.
Webb also took a few shots at Allen, particularly over the senator's close ties to Bush.
"When two people agree with each other 97 percent of the time, one of them doesn't need a job," Webb said.
During much of the debate, Webb sought to position himself as a populist who cares about the needs of people at the lower end of the economic ladder.
"The greatest concern I have as an American right now is the breakup of our society along economic lines," Webb said.
He then focused on Allen's resistance at raising the $5.15 an hour federal minimum wage. Webb asked Allen why he voted to raise his Senate salary four times but voted four times not to raise the minimum wage.
Allen said he supports raising the minimum wage but only if it is accompanied by additional tax relief for small businesses.
Allen talked about his efforts to reduce the number of uninsured Americans through the creation of health-care savings accounts. Webb responded that an even greater federal effort was needed to extend health care to more Americans.
Allen said he supports amending the state and U.S. constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage, something Webb opposes.
Allen defended his vote last week against allowing more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He said taxpayers should not finance a procedure that destroys a human embryo. Webb said Allen's vote shows he is out of touch with most Virginians.
Both candidates said they want to do more to crack down on illegal immigration. Allen said he opposes Bush's proposal for a guest worker program. He wants to build a fence along the Mexican border. Webb wants to punish corporations that hire illegal immigrants.
Strategists for Webb, who has roots in southwest Virginia, hope he can replay former Democratic governor Mark R. Warner's appeal to rural voters while retaining the party's base among liberals in Northern Virginia and African Americans in the Tidewater region.
During the primary, some African Americans questioned Webb's commitment to affirmative action. Webb said Saturday that he supports affirmative action for African Americans but does not believe it should be extended to other minority groups. If it is, Webb said he wants affirmative action programs opened up to poor whites.