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Virginia Senate Showdown:
VCU Political Analyst Robert D. Holsworth

Analyzing the Robb-Allen Debate

Senate Showdown
o Audio: Reporter Craig Timberg with analysts Larry Sabato and Robert Holsworth
o Virginia Senate 2000 Special Report
o Official site: Allen campaign
o Official site: Robb campaign
o Holsworth analyzed the second Virginia Senate debate online in September
o Holsworth discussed the Virginia GOP presidential primary online in February
o Live Online Transcripts

Monday, Oct. 23, 2000; 2 p.m. EDT

The U.S. Senate race in Virginia this year is one of the most closely watched contests in the nation, as veteran incumbent Sen. Charles Robb (D) faces off against popular former governor George Allen (R). Robb is finding himself the underdog in statewide polls as the two have sparred over education, guns and the environment, and the debates will give voters a chance to hear from the candidates in a forum outside their increasingly tough television ads.

What impact will the final debate have on the campaign? What kind of message can Virginians expect in these last few weeks? Prof. Robert D. Holsworth is the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert in politics in the Old Dominion. He will be live online on Monday, Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. EDT.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Greetings, and thanks for joining us today, Prof. Holsworth. What's your take on last night's debate? Who won? What were the highlights?

Robert D. Holsworth: Both candidates attempted to establish the themes that will be crucial to the last 15 days of the campaign. Senator Robb attempted to energize the Democratic base by emphasizing civil rights issues and some of former Governor Allen's votes in the Virginia general Assembly on these matters. Senator Robb also attempted to appeal to moderate Republicans by emphasizing his position on deficit reduction and abortion choice. Former Governor Allen wants to prevent any ticket splitting (Bush/Robb) and used "we" to speak about the Bush-Allen team. Governor Allen also attempted to emphasize his basic philosophy of government and his commitment to local control and contrasted that once again with Senator Robb's "Washington values." There weren't a lot of direct exchanges because of the format, but there was a lot of ground covered last evening.

Fairfax, VA: In the debate, Robb pointed out Allen's records on discriminating women. Is it true? If it is true, Allen will lost a lot of women's votes.

Robert D. Holsworth: In order for Chuck Robb to be reelected, he will have to run very strong among women voters, including a number who may well vote for George Bush. This is the reason that we will now be saying ads contrasting their positions on abortion choice and heard Robb's claims last evening about discrimination against women. George Allen will maintain that he has never supported discrimination (and that he opposes it consistently)and that the bills he has voted against are not simple matters of women's rights. But if the polls are correct and a significant number of undecided voters are women, we can understand why Senator Robb is making his appeal so pointedly.

Arlington: I only caught snippets of the debate last night but I was struck by how hard-hitting the questions were. Prof. Sabato seemed to be more lecturing than asking questions; not that that is a bad thing, but it was certainly not what I was expecting. Do you think the candidates were at all surprised by how tough the questions were? I have always hated George Allen, so his answer about pretending to be his father in the locker room struck me as incredibly silly, but I guess when you're ambushed somewhat you've got to say something.

Robert D. Holsworth: I thought that the tone of the questions asked by some of the television journalists last evening was inappropriate. Both of these candidates have impressive records as governor of Virginia and thoughtful positions on major issues. They have very significant differences on these issues (taxes, abortion choice, using the budget surplus, prescription drugs, etc.) that make this a fascinating campaign. I believe that a few of the television journalists last evening thought that a question was difficult if it was asked in an abrasive (and sometimes condescending) manner. I don't believe that this actually helps the political process very much. In addition, I think that former Governor Allen bore the brunt of this, but as I recall Senator Robb also had the pleasure of being called the "Invisible Senator" by one of our press members-whew!

Arlington: What impact will the long Senate session have on the campaign?

Robert D. Holsworth: This is certainly having an impact on senator Robb's capacity to engage in retail campaigning on a daily basis. But since so much of this campaign is now an exchange of ads, it may not be decisive. The curious feature is that, nationally, Trent Lott's inability to get the senate out of session could hurt the GOP, because they have more vulnerable incumbents than the Dems.

Springfield: Do you believe Robb's pledge to stop negative ads? Will that hurt him, if Allen still runs them?

Robert D. Holsworth: I do not believe that any campaign will stop negative ads. Senator Robb was in the position last evening to watch former Governor Allen have to answer the question first. Here is the real difficulty here: most people who have already made up their minds hate these ads and wish they didn't have to see them. But ads do provide some level of information to voters who are now just beginning to tune into the campaigns. They may not always be factually accurate, but they help some voters in deciding that this candidate "has views somewhat similar to mine." As long as we have an electorate with varying levels of information and varying levels of political interest, we will see negative or comparative ads.

Northern Virginia resident at work in DC ...: During Robb's campaign against O. North, Robb was successfully elected by staying "under the radar" of the media. Which, in my opinion, was a good strategy when going up against North. However, Robb is staying with his "under the radar" system and now that he's against Allen, he looks like he has something to hide and that he doesn't want the people to get to know him. Do you believe that this will hurt him in this election cycle?

Robert D. Holsworth: I think that Senator Robb would be disheartened to hear that he is still "under the radar screen" because I think that both he and his advisers believe that he has to be very visible against former Governor Allen. Certainly the campaign (and its surrogates) are spending about a million dollars per week on ads. It has, as noted above, been somewhat handicapped by the Senate remaining in session. But Senator Robb won't be able to win if most Virginians are unfamiliar with his record and the differences between him and a popular former Governor such as George Allen.

Alexandria: What issues are resonating the most with voters? Education, traffic? Is there a split in the state, and, if so, who is running stronger where?

Robert D. Holsworth: Good question because it is so difficult to answer. In good times such as the country and Virginia are experiencing right now, it is difficult to see what the great and decisive issues really are. People consistently report education to be their top priority, but it is not the kind of issue that people are talking about at work and on the streets every day. In this election, I have a feeling that it may come down to the voters' comfort level with the candidates on a set of issues. In particular, which candidate best represents Virginia's brand of moderation? Is it Chuck Robb who combines being a deficit hawk with social progressivism on civil rights issues or is George Allen who emphasizes a reduced scope for the federal government, local control and reduced taxes. The candidate who succeeds in capturing moderate voters could well be victorious on November 7th.

Fairfax VA: Hello. I hope you can answer this. This is the first year I will be voting. I admit I am not religiously following the debates, but from reading some articles so far from the Post, I have an idea of who I'd like to vote for in the VA Senate race. My question is, I notice there will be other positions that are being voted on but I have not heard about any of those candidates and prefer not to do any research on them. Can I leave the ballot blank on those or must I choose on that day? thanks..

washingtonpost.com: For more information on elections in Virginia, please see the Virginia Voters Guide.

Robert D. Holsworth: You will be able to choose the offices for which you cast a ballot. Some countries do have mandatory voting, but not the US. A few weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of visitors from Argentina who felt that our low turnout could be easily be rectified by mandatory voting and we had an interesting discussion about the American culture and ethos.

Portland Oregon (formerly of Richmond VA): Do you see any parallels in the Allen-Robb debates to the disconnects between analysis and public reaction to the Bush-Gore debates?

Robert D. Holsworth: I'm not certain that it is easy to draw these parallels. The presidential debates have a much wider viewership and I believe that the vast majority of opinions obtain their news about the debates from the next day media analysis.

But with that caveat, let me push ahead a bit. I think that most of the debate last evening took place on Senator Robb's terrain and he performed very creditably. At the same time, I felt that questions asked by the panel of Governor Allen were harsher in tone. I think that the losers in that exchange are the television journalists and the media. There may be a measure of sympathy expressed for anyone who has to respond to that kind of tone. In any case, I don't believe that senatorial debates have the same kind of immediate impact as presidential debates. These provide an unvarnished view of the candidates, but they may not determine how most Virginians vote.

Annandale, VA: Hello Dr. Holsworth!

Which issues do you think will be decisive in the Robb vs. Allen Senate race? I live in Northern VA where the traffic is an absolute nightmare! I noticed a few Robb commercials on TV attacking Allen when he was governor for cutting back VDOT and not adequately addressing the traffic problem in NoVA.

Also, finally, what is the latest polling data for the Robb vs. Allen Senate race?


Robert D. Holsworth: I'll answer the second part of the question first. I think that we'll see a flood of polls starting late this week up through election day. Recent polls have depended upon the organization. Mason Dixon has had Allen ahead in the 7-9 range, the Times-Dispatch has had it at 1-3 points. The Post has been at 5-8 and the internal polls of the candidates (if you can believe what they tell me-which I take with a healthy serving of salt)) have been as close as 2 on the Democratic side and up to 10 on the GOP side. In any event, all the polls have Allen leading, but not by a very large amount.

As to traffic- this is an issue on which both sides are finger-pointing and playing the blame game. If by November 7th, the public in N. Virginia does not see a big difference between the candidates, it will probably work to the advantage of Allen. Robb's challenge is to convince N. Virginia voters that there is a discernible difference in record and future prospects and that he can represent their interests about traffic amelioration best. At least so far, I'm not certain that the public perceives a very large difference here.

N. Va.: Hi.

Throughout the campaign season, I've visited both Gov. Allen's and Sen. Robb's Web pages. I personally like Allen's, but maybe that's my political partisanship showing through. Anyway, my question is what part, if any, do you see the Web playing in this election? What about e-mail?

Thank you in advance for answering my question.

Robert D. Holsworth: I'm not sure that the web will play a decisive factor. But candidates are using it in more sophisticated ways. I do like Governor Allen's Web page a lot. But I'm very impressed with how the Democratic Party have incorporated Web sites into their television ads-telling you how to obtain further information about parts of Governor Allen's record that they denounce. It's a neat touch and I think that by next year all candidates will be doing it. The big issue with the web will emerge over the next decade as we decide whether to try to rectify low levels of participation by online voting. If we can find a way to bridge the digital divide here, this will become one of the most fascinating debates of the first part of the 21st Century.

Richmond, VA: I thought I was watching Jerry Springer instead of a political debate. The questions from Larry Sabato and the panelists were intended more to showcase themselves instead of the candidates and took away from the "debate". What do you think?

Robert D. Holsworth: I've already had my say about the panel of television journalists-it might be just a matter of taste but I prefer Oprah.

Annandale, VA: What is the VA voting pattern these days? It seems VA has been trending Republican in recent years. According to recent polls GW Bush holds a solid lead over Al Gore in the presidential race.

Northern VA, however, seems to have a more "moderate" voting pattern electing both Republicans and Democrats. The more rural parts of VA tend be more conservative in their voting patterns and more reliably Republican. Is this is, indeed true, what is your explanation.

Thank you.

Robert D. Holsworth: Throughout the entire decade of the 1990's, there was only a single Democrat (Don Beyer in the 93 gubernatorial race) who received more than 50% of the vote in any race with a statewide constituency.

The point you make about Bush could not be more important. If he wins by the 10 points that he has been reported to be leading in the polls by, I figure that Robb will need to obtain the vote of 1 out of every 7 Bush voters; perhaps as much as 200,000 people.

I figure this out in the following way. Let us say that Bush carries Virginia 55-45. Now assume (and this is a conservative assumption I think) that two Gore voters cast ballots for Allen. This would mean that Robb would have to receive the votes of about eight voters who cast ballots for Bush in order to win or, approximately, 1 in 7 Bush voters. This task is doable, but it does tell us the extent of the challenge Robb faces. Robb would be a much better position if Gore could close the gap in VA to Clinton's numbers of the 1990's-lost by 4 in one election and 2 in the other.

Virginia: George Allen seems like a genuine nice guy, and I think that that's one thing that the people of northern Virginia like in their elected officials. What are some other trends in voting among northern Virginians? Do you think that we stick to party lines or do we vote for issues like one of the candidates being a "nice guy?"

Robert D. Holsworth: Northern Virginians are clearly key voters in this and in other elections. In the past Fairfax County (the largest) single jurisdiction has been very critical. But I think today that we have to include fast growing places like Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford in "northern Virginia." These are Republican leaning counties, but ones whose voters are not necessarily ideological Republicans. If Senator Robb is to hold his seat, he will have to win big in Fairfax and hold Republican margins in the fast growing western and southern NOVA suburbs.

Fairfax, VA: How much money is the national Democrat organization (both DNC and the Senate Committee) putting into Robb's campaign now as opposed to say two months ago? Is there a perception on the part of these organizations that this election is a lost cause and that the money is better spent elsewhere?

Robert D. Holsworth: I don't have any recent (as of this week) but my impression that the DNC and the Senate committee are spending heavily on the campaign. Just take a long at how many ads are on the television. In fact, one of the most amazing parts of the campaign is simply how much money outside groups are spending. We've seen a tour by Charlton Heston, a 1/2 million ad buy from a Gloria Steinem group, Handgun Control and the Sierra Club buying ads, etc.- It is one of the few campaigns where neither candidates seems to be worrying about how much money is available.

Manassas Virginia: Do you know how each the men stand on Gays in the Boy Scouts.


Robert D. Holsworth: Senator Robb tried to address this let evening in response to a question about the Scouts use of federal lands. As I gather, I think that Senator Robb said that he believed that the Court decision saying that the Scouts could prevent gays from being troop leaders was unfortunate inasmuch as he believes that people should be judged by their merits and not by their sexual preference. I do not think that former Governor Allen had to answer this question specifically.

Richmond: State workers were miserable under the highly ideological and partisan Allen administration. Could they tip the balance in this election?

Robert D. Holsworth: There is often a sense that state workers will be the "balance" in an election. But I have rarely seen an election where this turned out to be the case and I doubt that state workers will be decisive here. If Senator Robb is to win, he will have to simultaneously get the Democratic base energized and win GOP leaning moderates, especially in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suburbs. Some of these folks may be state workers, but these people are ones who have probably already made up their minds and won't be critical to any last weeks' surge that Robb could mount.

Arlington, VA: Why are we bothered by hard-hitting questions? I can see that ensuring an even-handed approach is important, but it seems to me that probing and/or hostile questions are much more interesting and relevant than softball questions which elicit predictable responses.

Robert D. Holsworth: Good question. I think that hard hitting questions are excellent. I just think that we shouldn't believe that simply because a question is asked in an abrasive and cynical way that it is "hard hitting". I think that Ted Koppel is one of the hardest hitting questioners that I have ever seen, but he always manages to accord his interviewees the respect that their positions and aspirations entitle them to. I don't believe that the panel of television journalists did so last evening.

Vienna, VA: In terms of bipartisanship, Allen seems to tout this as an asset for him. I'm not positive about his record, but I must say that I'm a bit leery as to authenticity of the promises he has made in this area. Robb seems awfully fiscally conservative, so it appears that if anyone can stake claim to being a bipartisan, it's him. What are your thoughts on this?

Robert D. Holsworth: In terms of inclination, I think George Allen is probably more partisan. This is probably because he spent time as a minority member of the Virginia general assembly while the Democrats treated the GOP with something close to disdain. Having said this, Allen had a very successful governorship in which he received Democratic backing for some key legislation.

Robb has certainly defined himself in the Senate as someone who can cross party lines. But given the brutal partisanship of Washington lately this hasn't always been very effective. In an ironic way, however, Robb's conception of his role as senator is relatively close to what George Bush says that hew will do as president-work across party lines to try to find consensus on key issues. The problem for Robb is that the atmosphere in DC during the last few years hasn't really rewarded this approach.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for taking the time to join us today, Prof. Holsworth. To sum up, can you tell us what we can expect to see as this race heads into the home stretch?

Robert D. Holsworth: I think that both candidates will stay on message and will simply turn up the volume. Robb will emphasize his credentials who is fiscally responsible and socially progressive and will suggest that this is the kind of senator most Virginians want. Allen will maintain that Robb's times has passed, that he is neither sufficiently in tune with the core values of Virginia about government at the start of the 21st century nor sufficiently vigorous in his representation of Virginia's interests.

Thanks again for all the great questions. I hope everyone has as much fun watching the next 15 days as I will.

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