By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 2009
Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell offered starkly different views on jobs, transportation, taxes and social issues Thursday in a debate that was combative almost from the minute the candidates for governor stepped onto the stage.
Both men were on the offensive for the duration of the hour-long debate in Tysons Corner. McDonnell accused Deeds of being a big spender who would increase the tax burden on Virginians, and the Democrat repeatedly attacked his opponent over a 20-year-old graduate school thesis, in which McDonnell laid out a conservative action plan to promote traditional families through government policy.
Deeds stepped up attacks that he has been airing in campaign commercials by insisting that McDonnell followed up his thesis with a long career of opposing working women, abortion and birth control as a member of the state House of Delegates.
"We know you don't support working women, but what do you have against working families, Bob?" Deeds asked in one exchange.
"Creigh, there you go again," said McDonnell, making use of a famous Ronald Reagan debate zinger. "Here's my wife and daughter. I've told you I support working women. Quite frankly, it's pretty insulting that you would say that my daughter, that I support and loved for 28 years, who went to fight in Iraq, that I don't support working women."
Later, Deeds opened himself to criticism by saying that he would not raise taxes but that he would come up with new money to pay for road and transit improvements. Pushed by reporters after the debate to explain the seeming contradiction, Deeds amended his answer to say he has no plans to raise taxes that go to the state's general fund, which pays for schools, public safety and other services. He did not make the same promise for taxes that support the state's transportation trust fund.
"What that meant is, in the general sense of the term, I'm not going to raise general fund taxes," Deeds said. "I'm willing to sign a bill that raises new money for transportation. In fact, I intend to sign that bill."
Deeds might have hurt his attempts to appeal to women voters during the same post-debate discussion by making a sharp remark to a female reporter who asked about his plan to pay for road improvements. "I think I made myself clear, young lady," said Deeds, though he said it with a smile. The exchange was quickly posted on YouTube and sent out by the state Republican party. Deeds later called to apologize to the reporter, Chelyen Davis of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, who said she was not offended by the remark.
Thursday's debate comes at a critical time in the race for Deeds, a state senator from rural Bath County, who is trying to build momentum after months of internal campaign struggles and lackluster enthusiasm among voters. McDonnell, a former legislator and attorney general, has led in polls throughout the campaign, amid voter anxiety about the direction of a state and nation run by Democrats.
Although both men were generally polite and respectful, the debate grew tense at times, as each turned directly to the other to deliver their strongest lines. Deeds often raised his voice, and although he was firmer and more concise than in previous appearances with McDonnell, he still struggled at times to articulate his positions. His folksy manner stood in contrast to McDonnell's precision.
The debate, which was sponsored by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Capital One Complex and moderated by "Meet the Press" host David Gregory.
McDonnell criticized Deeds as not having a specific funding plan for transportation in a state that has been searching for money for roads and bridges for years. Deeds has pledged to come up with a statewide, long-term solution in his first year in office but has offered no details, saying that doing so would jeopardize his ability to bring lawmakers together.
"Creigh Deeds, honestly, has no plan, not a single dime, other than 'Elect me. I'll get it done,' " McDonnell said.
McDonnell has proposed a number of ways to raise money to pay for roads and transit without raising taxes, including privatizing the state's liquor stores and adding tolls on some highways. But Deeds said McDonnell was offering a plan that would take money from the state's core services.
"My opponent has an approach as well that takes $540 million a year out of the general fund, most of which will come out of education," Deeds said.
As the state deals with the worst recession since the 1930s, Deeds and McDonnell offer fundamentally different visions of government's role in sparking private-sector expansion.
McDonnell insisted that low taxes and limited regulation would spur growth and that his experience as an executive for a Fortune 500 company made him better suited to persuade businesses to relocate to the state. "My opponent has been the biggest spender in the General Assembly last year, with over a billion dollars in new spending," McDonnell said.
Deeds, running as a pragmatic moderate who can reach across party lines, countered that investing in infrastructure such as schools and roads is the best way for government to grow the economy.
"My opponent, in his years in the legislature and as attorney general, never wrote a bill to create a job or expand an educational opportunity," Deeds said. "Instead he's been focused on a narrow band of social issues."
As he has for months, McDonnell tried Thursday to steer the conversation to controversial federal issues, including legislation on unions, climate change and health care, as he works to tie Deeds to President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Deeds was more willing than in the first debate to discuss some of those issues, saying that McDonnell is "lying" in a television ad that accuses Deeds of backing a bill in Congress that caps greenhouse gas emissions.
"That's a 1,500-page bill right now that nobody quite understands," Deeds said. "It, in my view, would put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
"I've said multiple times in front of Bob," Deeds continued, turning to McDonnell, "I don't support the bill."
Deeds also appeared to distance himself from Obama, who has endorsed the Democrat. Deeds said he is proud of the president's support, calling him "smart" and "innovative," but when he was asked whether Obama is his kind of Democrat, Deeds paused for a long moment before declaring, "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."
On health care, Deeds said he supported Obama's goals of increasing access while bringing down costs, including a mandate that individuals become insured. He said the government should takes steps to mitigate the effect of reform on small businesses. McDonnell said he thought reform efforts in Washington would add to the federal deficit.
The two parted ways over whether the state should close the "gun show loophole," which allows private individuals to sell weapons at gun shows without performing the background checks that licensed dealers are required to perform.
Deeds, who has long supported gun rights, said he shifted positions and supported changing the law after the shootings at Virginia Tech. McDonnell said he had worked with Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to make it harder to sell guns to buyers that courts have judged mentally ill, but he did not support closing the gun show loophole.
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.