By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 19, 2008
Republican James S. Gilmore III staked out strong conservative positions and Democrat Mark R. Warner sought to embrace the center, including supporting gun rights in the District, in a debate by Virginia's U.S. Senate candidates yesterday in McLean.
The candidates, who so far have largely been preoccupied with their records as governor, were forced yesterday to address other issues, such as their views on the economy and the hunt for terrorists around the globe.
They agreed that voters have a clear choice when it comes to personality and leadership styles. Gilmore said he would be a conservative voice in the Democratic-controlled Congress and would support drilling for oil, retaining President Bush's tax cuts and pursuing the war in Iraq to completion. He also would oppose efforts to make it easier to organize a labor union.
"There are serious challenges out there, and people want to see quick action," Gilmore said during the debate, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "The people of Virginia want to know they will have a senator who will keep [his] word."
Warner argued that he has the experience to end years of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and that Virginia voters are ready to embrace his philosophy of seeking common ground on issues such as energy, the right to join a union, and taxes and spending.
"At the end of the day, Virginians do have a choice," Warner told a crowd of 400 Northern Virginia business and political leaders. "A senator who's produced results, or one who's about more partisanship."
Warner took at least one position that could put him at odds with some Democrats in Washington, as well as the more liberal wing of his party. Noting that he has been a strong defender of the Second Amendment, Warner said he agrees with efforts in Congress to seize control of the District's handgun regulation. Warner agreed with Gilmore that D.C. officials appear to be trying to get around the Supreme Court ruling that the city's ban on handguns was unconstitutional.
After a string of questions about domestic policy, debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News drew the two candidates into their most substantive joint discussion of foreign policy so far.
Warner, who does not have a background in foreign affairs, said he believes Pakistan could one day emerge as "the most dangerous nation" in the world.
"The challenge with the Pakistanis is one day they're helping us and the next they're indirectly funneling help to the Taliban," said Warner, who also raised concerns about Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Gilmore, who chaired a federal homeland security commission in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, agreed with Warner that U.S. troops should have the right to enter Pakistan in search of terrorists. But Gilmore also stressed that Pakistan remains a U.S. ally.
"I think I would not sit here in an open forum today and say and describe the country of Pakistan as one of the great potential threats," Gilmore said.
Although the war in Iraq dominated Virginia's 2006 Senate race between George Allen (R) and James Webb (D), Warner appeared to play down any difference between himself and Gilmore over the issue.
Warner said he would not set a timeline for troops to come home from Iraq. But Gilmore accused Warner of changing his stance from last year, when he said troops should start to leave in January 2009.
Gilmore said the troops should stay as long as needed. "Any kind of timetable is not responsible," he said. "This is not the way to be conducting foreign policy in Iraq."
Still, the 90-minute debate did little to change the dynamics of a race in which Gilmore has struggled to remain competitive with Warner in opinion polls and fundraising.
The candidates appeared on equal footing during much of the debate as they answered questions from a three-member of panel of journalists.
Both men were far less combative than they were during their first debate two months ago at the Homestead resort in western Virginia, but Gilmore sought repeatedly to try to link Warner to the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill).
"Mark Warner wants to raise taxes. Barack Obama wants to raise taxes, and this is not going to be healthy for the economy in a time of stress," Gilmore said.
The economy and taxes dominated much of the first half of the debate. Gilmore, whose signature achievement as governor was his effort to eliminate Virginia's car tax, frequently mentioned that Warner pushed through a $1.4 billion tax increase in 2004. The car tax never was fully revoked because of budget restraints.
Warner countered that the tax increase was needed to close a $6 billion budget shortfall that he said he inherited from Gilmore. The Republican said he left office with a balanced budget.
Warner also opened a new line of attack about Gilmore's record. Citing a letter from U.S. transportation officials, Warner said the federal government threatened to withhold money for the Springfield Mixing Bowl project because of mismanagement and a politicized transportation department when Gilmore was governor.
"There was no part of Virginia that was more broken when I become governor than Virginia's transportation efforts," Warner said.
Gilmore called Warner's criticisms "outrageous falsehoods" and said Warner's tax increase did little to help road-building.
He tried to keep the focus on the 2004 tax increases. Gilmore said they were proof that Warner would support higher federal taxes as well.
"Taxes are coming at us like a freight train," Gilmore said.
Gilmore was referring to Obama's proposal to roll back Bush's tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Warner said he supports eliminating those tax cuts as a way of reducing the federal deficit.
When the debate turned to the crisis on Wall Street, Gilmore and Warner both said they would support an increase in regulation, even if it meant bigger government.
"We have to have more oversight," Gilmore said.
Warner said the problems in banking and the mortgage business were caused by "too many people asleep at the switch in Washington."
"Everyone was looking at the next quarterly profits, and no one had a long-term plan," he said.