By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls R. Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran sought to isolate rival Terry McAuliffe in the final debate of the primary campaign yesterday by trying to portray him as someone who has exaggerated his business record, inflated his campaign promises and dissembled about his campaign contributors.
"Tell me, Terry, how is this a credible, positive campaign? And how will Virginia voters trust that you'll care about their jobs and creating any new jobs?" Moran asked pointedly.
With three weeks to the June 9 primary, the debate mirrored the closing themes of a hard-fought campaign, with McAuliffe maintaining his role as the center of attention as he wages an outsider bid to become the Democratic standard-bearer in a general election race against Republican Robert F. McDonnell.
After absorbing repeated jabs, McAuliffe dismissed the critiques as "divisive politics of destruction that people are sick and tired of," and he asked his opponents to redouble their efforts to focus on ideas so the party can emerge from the primary united.
"That's what Democratic primaries are all about," he said.
Almost 500 people watched the three men clash at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus, as each sought to stamp a final impression in a race where polls show the majority of voters remain undecided.
With little daylight separating the three Democrats on most major issues, the debate, like the campaign, turned into more of a referendum on style -- and most notably on what McAuliffe described as his shoot-for-the-moon approach to political campaigning. Deeds and Moran have struggled for months to take attention away from the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whose national connections and outsized personality have led to more money and more media exposure.
The two longtime legislators joined forces to suggest that voters should view as slick the claims of McAuliffe's well-funded campaign, at least in part because he boasts a thin record in Virginia politics. Last night, Moran picked up the theme in his first TV ad scheduled to run during the debate in Northern Virginia, followed by a week in Hampton Roads and Richmond.
In one exchange, Moran turned to McAuliffe and said: "I don't have time to teach you the legislative process, nor do Virginians have time for you to learn.''
In another, Deeds asked: "So, Terry, I get that you've paid for this campaign about big ideas, but now tell us how you'd actually govern -- and how would you pay for all these big ideas," Deeds asked.
Moran repeatedly questioned McAuliffe's claim that he had created 100,000 jobs -- which, he said, would put him in the category of creating more than Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Deeds questioned his promises, noting he has so far pledged to build a high school gym in Martinsville, pay off teachers' mortgages and loans, reform Medicaid and use his Hollywood connections to make Virginia the new film capital of the world.
McAuliffe made no apologies. He said his achievements outside of Virginia, including a string of successful business investments and sure-footed leadership of the national Democratic Party, show he can make good on promises and bring new ideas to a stalemated Richmond.
"You shoot for the moon,'' McAuliffe said. "John Kennedy didn't say we were taking a rocket halfway to the moon, he said all the way."
McAuliffe, Deeds and Moran are running to replace Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who is barred from running for a second term, in a closely watched race that could help determine whether Virginia will continue to trend in favor of Democratic candidates. This year's primary is the party's first contested gubernatorial nomination battle in more than two decades.
During the hour-long debate, hosted by The Washington Post and News Channel 8, the candidates made it clear that they agree on the need to boost the economy, create jobs, fund roads and transit and enforce immigration laws. They clashed on just two issues.
Moran opposes drilling for oil and gas off Virginia's coast, as a way to protect the state's tourism industry and the Chesapeake Bay. McAuliffe said he wants to explore for natural gas, though not oil, 50 miles off the coast. Deeds said he backs drilling as long as the state shares in the profits.
"Energy independence is a matter of national and economic security,'' Deeds said. "I don't believe any means toward achieving independence should be taken off the table. . . . That includes offshore drilling."
All three oppose same-sex marriage but said they would support some contractual relationships between same-sex partners, including the right to adopt a child.
Moran, who has tried to position himself as the most progressive candidate, was the most vocal in pledging to repeal the amendment that bans contractual relationships between same-sex couples. "I fought against that, I voted against it, I campaigned against it and unfortunately it passed," Moran said. "As governor, I will not rest until we repeal" it.
Deeds said he did not believe a consensus exists in the General Assembly to change Virginia law. McAuliffe said he would focus his attention on the economy.
The most lively part of the debate came when the three men were allowed to ask questions of each other. Both Deeds and Moran queried McAuliffe, a longtime McLean resident but a newcomer to state politics.
McAuliffe repeatedly told the audience he refused campaign contributions from Dominion Virginia Power, one of the most influential companies in the state. He said he made this pledge in part because the company is resistant to government-mandated use of renewable fuels. But Deeds called it a "little disingenuous" for McAuliffe to say he has not accepted money from Dominion, when he took individual donations from the company's executives.
"I can justify everything I've done," McAuliffe said as he tried to deflect the charges. And he returned repeatedly to his belief that the party needs unity.
"People are watching this debate saying, 'What are you going to do for me? How are you going to create jobs?' " McAuliffe said. "They're tired of this personal destruction and divisiveness."