Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gerald L. Baliles turned a 90-minute joint appearance into a broad political attack on Republican Wyatt B. Durrette today, repeatedly accusing Durrette of inconsistency and inexperience.
"I doubt very much the average patient would choose a doctor who hadn't practiced since the mid-1970s," Baliles said in a biting reference to Durrette's last election victory as a state legislator in 1975.
Baliles, who defeated Durrette for the job of state attorney general in 1981, also accused Durrette of changing positions on such emotional issues as abortion, capital punishment and collective bargaining.
It was the first appearance together since both men claimed their party nominations. Neither candidate has officially become his party's nominee. Durrette goes before the Republican convention here next week. Baliles will receive the Democratic nomination the following week at the convention in Richmond.
Durrette, a Richmond lawyer and former legislator from Fairfax County, at first seemed unsettled by Baliles' aggressive stance, but stepped up his own criticisms during questioning by a panel of reporters. About 200 people attended the gathering at a meeting of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association.
Durrette accused Baliles of "evasion of the question" and "incredible misrepresentation" when the two tangled over abortion rights.
He also faulted Baliles for defending the state's right-to-work laws as attorney general only after being urged to do so by the state legislature this year.
Durrette devoted much of his closing statement to his "far broader" experience as a community leader rather than a government official. After the program he said he altered his closing statement to counter Baliles' attacks on his experience.
Durrette, 47, seemed to direct many of his remarks to the conservative audience in the room, extolling the free enterprise system and less government while Baliles, 45, attempted to hammer at issues that point to differences between the two candidates, both considered moderate-conservatives in Virginia.
On the issue of abortion, Durrette, who opposes it, was pointedly asked whether he would object to an abortion if "a loved one" was either the victim of rape or incest or faced gross fetal abnormalities -- some of the conditions under which public funds are used for abortions in Virginia.
Durrette acknowledged the "intense personal tragedy" but said "that child conceived is a human being" with "the same right to live."
Baliles, who says women have the right to choose whether to have an abortion, noted that Durrette had supported abortion legislation in 1974.
"He chose then to support and introduce abortion legislation -- I have been consistent in my views," Baliles said.
Durrette countered that the 1974 law was the toughest permitted under a landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Durrette also said he would oppose current state use of Medicaid funds for abortions, a program Baliles supports.
Durrette reacted to other Baliles criticisms by saying he had long ago dropped support for even limited public employe collective bargaining and opposed some death penalty bills in the legislature only because he believed they were constitutionally flawed.
Both Durrette and Baliles said there was not much the state could do about divestiture in companies doing business with South Africa, but Baliles said he would be willing to consider any proposals since "I oppose discrimination." Durrette said such a policy would hurt poor blacks in South Africa and that he would not favor it based on what he knows about the issue now.
On campaign finances, Durrette said a report due this week will show he has raised "right at $1 million," a sharp increase from sluggish fund-raising earlier this year. Durrette also gibed at Baliles for his controversial "bail-out" of Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, who dropped out of the race for governor.
Baliles, who also has raised and spent about $1 million, agreed to pay off about $150,000 in Davis' campaign debts despite reports that his own campaign was in debt.
On one sensitive question concerning racial bigotry, both Durrette and Baliles deplored any efforts to exploit it in this year's statewide races.
Durrette said it was "very unfortunate" that racism had been injected into the campaign for lieutenant governor. Durrette recently criticized state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), who is black, as the "most liberal" candidate ever to run for lieutenant governor and complained when Wilder said the phrase could be viewed as racist.
Durrette strongly denied that assertion again today but said Wilder's complaints would not deter him from discussing issues.
Baliles declined to characterize Durrette's remarks but criticized Durrette for using an obscure conservative rating group to back up his use of "most liberal" against Wilder.