This Time, Focus Is Domestic Issues

Sen. George Allen and James Webb said Virginia should make for-profit roads easier to build but avoided discussing taxes to fund transportation.
Sen. George Allen and James Webb said Virginia should make for-profit roads easier to build but avoided discussing taxes to fund transportation. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) and Democratic challenger James Webb turned to domestic issues yesterday as they sparred during a debate in Northern Virginia over health care, the economy, transportation and stem cell research.

At their second meeting in two days, Allen urged voters to return him to the Senate because he's a familiar face ("you know me") with a record of service. Webb, a former Marine and secretary of the Navy who has never run for office, countered that the country is "breaking apart" and needs fresh blood in Washington.

More than 600 people jammed a hotel ballroom in Tysons Corner for the hour-long debate, the only time Allen and Webb are scheduled to square off in Northern Virginia before the Nov. 7 election. The event, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, was moderated by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News and televised by NewsChannel 8 and C-SPAN.

The debate -- as well as one Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" -- brought a new intensity to the Virginia campaign, but political observers said neither event was likely to alter a close race.

"I don't think we saw any changed dynamics," Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said. "But seven weeks is an eternity in politics."

At times the candidates' responses got heated. One of the journalists who asked questions forced Allen to defend his mother, while Webb again was dogged by charges that he is insensitive to women in the military. The candidates also argued over how best to fight the war in Iraq and whether the United States should involve Iran in Iraq's future.

Allen sought to convince the audience that the Iraq war is only part of the race. "My friends, this is not a one-issue campaign," said Allen, a former governor and state legislator. "There are many issues important for the security, safety and prosperity of this country."

Anger about the war has turned the race into one of the most closely watched in the nation. But yesterday's matchup also gave the candidates an opportunity to talk about local and domestic issues that are often deciding factors for voters.

"We are breaking apart in a way we have never had before," Webb said. "The people at the top of society have never had it so good. . . . The middle class, with the rising cost of health care and stagnation of income levels, is in great danger right now."

Allen discussed his plans for health savings accounts, support for small businesses and efforts to invest in technology. He often stressed the contrast in experience, portraying himself as "somebody [who] has the concrete, verifiable record for performance with actual plans on ideas that can actually, tangibly have an impact on people's lives."

Webb criticized Allen for voting against minimum-wage increases and said the Republican-controlled Congress has failed to provide health insurance to an estimated 46 million Americans.

Allen said he supports legislation that makes it easier for small businesses to band together to buy health care for their employees. Webb countered that Allen's solution is insufficient, saying the federal government should move toward a system in which health care is expanded to everyone.

Turning to stem cell research, Allen defended his vote this year to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, saying he can't support a procedure that destroys a human embryo. Webb said he supports federal funding because he doesn't believe an embryo is a human life.

Although many in the audience of business leaders support higher state taxes for transportation improvements, neither candidate was willing to wade into that thorny issue. The Virginia General Assembly will take up transportation spending next week.

Allen and Webb said the state should make it easier for private companies to build and maintain for-profit roads. But several audience members said they wished Allen and Webb had talked more about solutions to the region's traffic woes.

"That, to me, is the issue in Northern Virginia," said state Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), who has proposed tax increases to pay for road and transit fixes.

Both candidates said they support federal legislation to allow gun owners to carry weapons between states. Webb, who is trying to reach out to Republican-leaning rural voters, noted that he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

The candidates had several sharp exchanges, such as on their ties to southwest Virginia, an area that sometimes has been key to Democratic wins.

"I've been coming to southwest Virginia since George Allen was a Californian," said Webb, who has relatives in that area. Allen shot back that he started his law career in the region. "For me, it's a place in my heart, not a place on a map."

Allen hammered Webb for saying Sunday that solving hostilities in the Middle East would require the help of neighboring countries, including Iran and Syria. Allen said involving Iran, which sponsors terrorism, in Iraq's future "wouldn't make Iraq more secure, nor would it make Americans more secure."

Webb responded by noting that the United States has a long history of talking to its enemies, including China and Russia during the Cold War.

Both candidates were forced to address character issues that have distracted their campaigns. Webb gave his most direct apology yet for a 1979 magazine article opposing women in combat that some women said was offensive.

Allen couldn't escape additional questions about his calling a young Webb aide of Indian descent "macaca," a slur in some cultures, including France. A panelist asked Allen, who says the word was made up, if he might have learned "macaca" from his mother, who is part French Tunisian. The panelist also asked whether his mother was Jewish.

"I hope you are not bringing my mother into this," Allen said.

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