By Michael D. Shear

and Chris L. Jenkins

Washington Post Staff Writers

Virginia's candidates for governor engaged in an afternoon of face-to-face recriminations on tax and transportation issues yesterday, clashing during two debates in Fairfax County over who could better manage the taxpayers' money and ease Northern Virginia's traffic congestion.

Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine faced each other in the first hour-long event, a forum sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce that has become a critical event in Virginia's fall campaign season. H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican senator from Winchester who is running as an independent, was not invited to that, but Kaine joined him afterward in the same hotel for another hour-long session sponsored by the Virginia Education Forum. Both were televised by NewsChannel 8.

Kaine was aggressive in challenging the men he referred to as his two Republican opponents. He called Kilgore "mean-spirited" and repeatedly accused him of wanting to turn back progress made under Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

"Jerry Kilgore has fought against every reform that Mark Warner and I have worked on in the last three years," Kaine said.

In his second exchange, Kaine said Potts would be unable to lead a complicated and diverse state such as Virginia after Potts challenged Kaine's claim to being the natural heir to Warner. The contest, which started gently and heated up, ended with Potts calling Kaine "immoral" for making promises he wouldn't be able to keep.

"If you're looking for Warner 2, you're more likely to get it from Russ Potts than you are in Tim Kaine, ladies and gentlemen," Potts said.

During the first debate, Kilgore said Kaine is a "liberal" whose main goal would be to raise taxes while doing nothing to improve transportation in Northern Virginia.

"Just admit it, Tim," Kilgore said in one of many personal exchanges between the two men. "You raised taxes. He's afraid to say to Virginians that he raised taxes."

But Kilgore faltered under a series of questions by moderator Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press. Asked by Russert whether he would sign a bill to outlaw abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Kilgore refused to answer, calling the question hypothetical.

Russert, who thrills in catching national politicians in contradictions on his Sunday morning show, followed up quickly by asking whether Kilgore would veto a tax increase. Kilgore fell for the trick question, saying he would.

"That's a hypothetical question!" Russert said, prompting laughter from the luncheon crowd of more than 500 Northern Virginia business executives in the ballroom of the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner.

"Kilgore was nervous and tense. He sounded bad. He argued badly," said University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato, who is scheduled to moderate a debate Oct. 9. "This was Kaine's best performance ever."

The chamber debate is historically a forum on Northern Virginia's transportation problems, a key concern of many in the region's business community.

Kaine and Kilgore seized on that topic. Kilgore promised repeatedly to widen Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and said he would work to build another bridge across the Potomac River. Kaine talked about raising money for roads and transit with Warner and vowed to do more of the same.

But both spent more time trying to discredit the other's plans than in offering details about their own.

"Talk about a hollow plan," Kaine said of Kilgore's promise to improve transportation in Northern Virginia. "My opponent has never done anything in the area of transportation except fight against our efforts to fund it."

Kilgore accused Kaine of supporting a gas tax increase during the fight over the 2004 budget even though the Democrat says he does not support one now. "He wanted to raise the gas tax -- double the gas tax -- make the gas tax the highest in the nation," Kilgore said.

David Guernsey, who sat at a table with other former chairmen of the chamber and Potts at the debate, dismissed both Kaine and Kilgore.

"Transportation lip service," Guernsey said. "One of the reasons we wanted Russ Potts up there was because we have at least one guy -- albeit a guy with no chance -- who is telling it like it is."

Mike Lewis, another former chamber chairman, said he was especially disappointed with Kilgore's performance.

"He stayed with pre-scripted themes and didn't address real issues," Lewis said after the debate. He said Kilgore repeatedly promised new roads and bridges for Northern Virginia without saying how he would pay for them.

Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) said Kilgore did well by criticizing Kaine repeatedly for supporting the tax increase that ended the 2004 budget stalemate. Kilgore opposed the increase, which raised $1.5 billion over two years for state services, but said he had no plans to seek its reversal.

"He made the point that Kaine is a liberal who is going to raise your taxes," Hugo said.

Discussing his stand against public funding for centers to help day laborers, some of whom might be illegal immigrants, Kilgore said the problem is "politicians encouraging the breaking of the law." Kaine responded by saying "there's a mean-spiritedness in your attack."

Russert questioned Kaine about whether the Democrat's personal opposition to the death penalty would influence his decisions as governor.

"I'm not going to spend my time fighting a quixotic battle that I can't win," Kaine answered.

Kilgore dismissed the second debate as "a stunt" and announced he would be discussing education policy with the Fairfax superintendent of schools and the U.S. secretary of Education Tuesday afternoon.

In the second forum, Potts chastised Kaine for promising an expensive preschool program and for failing to offer specific plans to raise money for transportation projects. Potts has said the state needs to raise taxes by $2 billion or more for transportation improvements.

Kaine said that Potts's attacks on him as immoral showed an inability to lead. "If you hurl a charge like that . . . what kind of ability do you have to make things happen?" Kaine said. "If you're so quick to throw out a charge and not listen to what people have to say."

The debate telecasts were available to most cable TV subscribers in the region. The Kaine-Kilgore forum will be rebroadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Both campaigns indicated yesterday that they have plenty of money left to get their messages out before the Nov. 8 election. Kilgore aides said his campaign took in $3.2 million during the past two months, beating Kaine by about $1 million for the period. Kilgore has about $6.7 million on hand; Kaine has $5.7 million; and Potts has $300,000.

Watched by moderator Tim Russert, center, Timothy M. Kaine and Jerry W. Kilgore face off before the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce at the Hilton Hotel in McLean.H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican senator from Winchester who is running as an independent, wasn't invited to the main debate but got in words elsewhere.