A half-full auditorium of backpack-toting students listened to two of Virginia's three gubernatorial candidates clash over how to fund transportation and higher education yesterday at George Mason University.

It was the third debate between Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, and H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican senator from Winchester who is running as an independent. Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore was invited to attend but declined.

An empty lectern with his name was left on stage, "should he have a change of heart," said Bruce Alan, news anchor at WTOP radio, who emceed the live, on-air debate, interrupting every 10 minutes "for traffic and weather on the 8s."

Questions during the hour-long debate came from a panel of moderators, including Alan; Bruce DePuyt, host of "NewsTalk" on NewsChannel 8; Mark Plotkin, political commentator for WTOP; and Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

Kaine said he would draw transportation funding from budget surpluses and taxes on auto insurance premiums that now support other programs. He would also rely on new public-private partnerships to build projects. He stressed that he would not raise taxes unless the transportation trust fund was secured by a state constitutional amendment, so that he could promise voters that their money would not be spent on anything else.

"I won't be part of a bait-and-switch. I won't be part of a sham," Kaine said.

Potts countered that Kaine's plan demonstrated no urgency -- because his constitutional amendment could take years to pass -- and that his funding sources would amount to an "ant on an elephant's fanny."

He said his plan would raise $2 billion annually through a range of sources, including tax increases, and he described himself as the only candidate with a detailed transportation plan that spells out not just specific projects, but also how they would be funded.

"I hate taxes, but I love Virginia more," he said.

When asked how he would address the state's increasing education costs, Kaine said a top budget priority would be to fully fund elementary and higher education according to state standards that have not been met in past years. Potts highlighted his work in the legislature to eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles that private interests confront while trying to give money to public schools.

The candidates also discussed their stands on abortion. Both said they would veto any attempt to make abortion illegal in Virginia, should the U.S. Supreme Court give states that option by overturning Roe v. Wade.

Kaine, who says he is personally opposed to abortion, said he thought it would be a good public policy goal to decrease the number of abortions performed in the state by ensuring that women have good access to health care, including contraceptives.

Discussing enforcement of the state's capital punishment laws, Potts said he was a strong proponent of the death penalty. Kaine said that although he is morally opposed to executions, he would uphold the state's law.

After the debate, a crowd of students -- many wearing Tim Kaine T-shirts and stickers -- surrounded the Democrat to shake his hand.

Preston Kussmann, a freshman at George Mason, was among them. "I'm finally 18 -- I can finally vote," he said. Kussmann said he was a Democrat and a Kaine supporter but that he was impressed by Potts and what seemed to be his independence from the Republican Party, his stand in favor of abortion rights and his willingness to raise taxes.

He said that if Potts were a Democrat, he would consider voting for him.

Rozell said he thought that both candidates did well and that their relaxed and engaging styles appealed to the young audience.

Ultimately, though, he said he thought the debate will be a blip on the campaign radar screen because of Kilgore's absence.