By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; B01
SALEM, VA. -- With little time remaining before the Nov. 3 election, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell went on the attack Tuesday in the final debate in the race for Virginia governor.
McDonnell accused Deeds of plotting a tax increase and backing controversial Democratic proposals in Washington. Deeds sought to convince voters that McDonnell, a former legislator and state attorney general, had undergone a dramatic election-year conversion from a conservative ideologue to a pragmatic moderate.
"Legislator Bob McDonnell was never focused on jobs. Candidate Bob McDonnell talks a lot about jobs," Deeds said. "It's important for Bob and I to tell people what we're going to do as governor. But more relevant . . . is to take a look at our records."
McDonnell focused on a familiar topic -- taxes -- repeatedly accusing Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, of supporting a massive tax increase as he tried to tie him to Washington excesses.
"I believe a governor needs to stand up to Washington. I don't care if they're Republican or Democrat, if they do things that are bad for Virginia, that are going to kill jobs, create new bureaucracy or hurt small businesses," McDonnell said. "I will be a governor who will stand up and say, 'That's not good for Virginia.' My opponent and his Washington allies that want to raise taxes won't do that."
Deeds and McDonnell were generally polite, although they interrupted each other several times in a series of feisty exchanges made possible by an open-ended format.
When the moderator asked Deeds which taxes he would support increasing, McDonnell tried to jump in: "I can answer that!"
"No, you can't!" Deeds responded, glaring at McDonnell before saying that he would consider raising any tax tied to transportation funding.
Still, the lively 60-minute debate appeared to do little to change the dynamics of a race in which Deeds trails McDonnell in public opinion polls, fundraising and advertising. The questions covered mostly familiar ground, and there seemed to be no game-changing moments.
During the first half of the debate, the two were asked to discuss a trio of issues that have dominated the race -- transportation, the economy and McDonnell's controversial 20-year-old graduate school thesis, in which he wrote that working women, feminists and homosexuals were detrimental to the traditional family.
They were pressed by moderator Jay Warren of WSLS in Roanoke to answer questions they have largely sought to avoid in the campaign. For the most part, they continued to refrain from responding with specifics.
Deeds was asked several times in several ways which specific taxes he would support raising to pay for transportation fixes. Each time, he answered in the same general terms.
"Anything that has a nexus to transportation is on the table," he said in answer to one of the queries.
McDonnell, whose strong opposition to abortion has been a campaign issue, was pressed to say whether there are any instances in which he thinks the practice should be legal. He said he would follow current law, but little more. "I was raised in a middle-class Catholic family in Northern Virginia," he said. "My parents taught me about protecting innocent life, about protecting the family. And those are my personal views."
Deeds and McDonnell referred to each other by their first names and were much more relaxed than they were last week, when both stumbled over their words. Both were familiar enough with the issues in the campaign that they were ready for each other's answers on a variety of issues, including energy, higher education and job creation.
With the state facing a multibillion dollar shortfall in the worst economic downtown since the 1930s, Deeds and McDonnell were pushed to explain how they would pay for some of their costly proposals while the state has slashed budgets. Both said they would save money through new government efficiencies and innovative programs and insisted they could find money for their ideas by making them priorities.
On health care, Deeds broke new ground by saying that as governor, he would consider opting out of a public health-care option if states are extended that right under legislation being considered in Congress. McDonnell, who opposes reform efforts in Washington, unequivocally said he would opt out if offered that choice.
"I don't think a public option is necessary in any plan, and I would certainly consider opting out if that were available to Virginia," Deeds said during the debate, an answer that could put him at odds with some of the core Democrats he has been trying to get excited about his candidacy in the race's final days.
After the debate, Deeds told reporters he thought the public option could help reduce costs and expand coverage, but he is not certain it is the best way to achieve those goals. "It may be one way, it might not be the best way," he said.
McDonnell said he opposes allowing the federal government to offer health care. "I tell you, we've got the best doctors, the best hospitals, the best research into developmental pharmaceuticals in the world, and the last thing we want to do is turn that over to the federal government," McDonnell said.
The economy played a large role in the debate, as it has throughout the campaign, and both men promised to focus on job creation in the down economy. They have each endorsed doubling the Governor's Economic Opportunity fund, which provides incentives to companies that relocate to Virginia, and both propose crafting tax benefits for renewable energy companies.
Deeds has said he would award a tax credit to every business that creates a job, equivalent to the increase in federal payroll taxes that a company incurs for a new position. "We have to be about stimulating growth in every part of Virginia," Deeds said.
McDonnell has called for a $1,000-per-job credit to companies that create at least 50 new jobs or 25 jobs in particularly economically depressed parts of the state.
On a day that drew heavy media coverage to Northern Virginia for a Deeds rally with former President Bill Clinton, the final debate attracted less attention than last week's joint appearance. Television stations in three Virginia markets -- Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville -- carried the hour-long 7 p.m. debate live. The debate also aired on C-SPAN and at http://www.wsls.com.
About 400 people attended the debate, sponsored by WSLS and Roanoke College, on the school's campus in Salem.