Allen and Webb Set for High-Stakes Debates in a Redefined Race

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

RICHMOND -- Virginia's U.S. Senate candidates will debate twice in the next two days, the first time they have faced each other since George Allen's "macaca" gaffe turned the race into a close, increasingly nasty affair.

This morning, Allen, the Republican incumbent, is scheduled to square off against Democratic challenger James Webb on NBC's "Meet the Press." The 40-minute exchange will be moderated by host Tim Russert, often an aggressive questioner.

A sequel will come tomorrow in Tysons Corner, when Allen and Webb meet at a debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce with George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's "This Week," as moderator. The last time the two debated was July 22.

The upcoming forums will be the first public opportunity for Webb to confront Allen about his use of the word "macaca" to describe a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian descent. That comment last month at a campaign stop in southwest Virginia sparked a political firestorm for Allen and has caused the race to tighten, according to several polls.

In return, the debates will give Allen a chance to repeat attacks he launched against Webb this week: that the Democrat inappropriately used footage of Ronald Reagan in a TV commercial and that an article penned by Webb nearly 27 years ago sparked harassment of women at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"It's hard to avoid the recent campaign stories that have dominated," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "At some point, these guys will get out of the 1970s and 1980s and talk about current issues more."

Although likely to be seen by relatively small audiences, the debates will be important for both candidates, longtime political observers say.

Allen needs to reassure GOP insiders that his campaign is back on track after a disastrous August. A strong performance on "Meet the Press," a must-see show in Washington, could help soothe concerns, some analysts said.

Webb aides have said fundraising has picked up since Allen's use of macaca, a slur in some cultures. But Webb still trails his opponent in the money race, and national Democrats are looking for a reason to spend money on his behalf. Besting Allen on national television would help, analysts said.

But the debates also could be dangerous, pundits say. If either Webb or Allen makes a major mistake, it could doom his chances Nov. 7.

"Macaca taught us an important lesson: A gaffe can cost a candidate 10 points overnight," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I would expect them both to be relatively cautious and relatively negative."

The Chamber of Commerce debate will have a traditional format: the candidates at lecterns with Stephanopoulos as moderator and a panel of three Virginia journalists asking questions. The audience will be about 600 Northern Virginia business executives. The debate will be carried live by NewsChannel 8 and rebroadcast by C-SPAN and other channels.

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