Larry J. Sabato, the ubiquitous political pundit from the University of Virginia, gets a lot of ink, and a fair amount of grief, for his widespread musings on state politics. But the guy knows how to put on a snappy debate.
Actually, Sunday night's televised gubernatorial debate between Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine was a bit more like a game show. With Sabato moderating, a stack of e-mailed inquiries from voters across the state and a "lightning round" quiz not as cheesy as it sounds, the two candidates fielded dozens of questions in the hour-long contest.
Too bad so many of them had the same answer.
From Kaine, it was that he is the logical successor to popular Gov. Mark R. Warner.
From Kilgore, it was that Kaine is a big liberal.
Really, it was all there in the candidates' opening statements.
Kaine went first and rambled 22 seconds before mentioning his fellow Democrat. "I'm the right leader because I've worked in a bipartisan, fiscally responsible and pro-business way with Governor Mark Warner to turn our state around," he said. He tried to warn the TV audience of what was ahead: Kilgore, he said, "fought against every bit of progress we've made, always crying 'liberal' when we tried to move the state forward."
Responded Kilgore: "You've just heard my opponent talk about the 'Warner-Kaine administration.' But what you're going to find on the ballot this November is no Mark Warner. It's time for Tim Kaine to stand on his own record. He's the most liberal candidate to ever run for governor in the commonwealth of Virginia's history."
The rest of the evening was pretty much a variation on that.
That's not to say it wasn't entertaining and, to an extent, enlightening about the two men with the best chances of running the state for the next four years. (State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., who is running as an independent, was not allowed into the debate, partly because he has not made enough of an impact in the polls but mostly because Kilgore will not agree to any debate that includes his fellow Republican from Winchester.)
Kaine, the lieutenant governor and former Richmond mayor, has a trial lawyer's demeanor. He told supporters recently that he has "the gift of gab," and he was rarely caught off-guard Sunday night, though he seemed to get tougher questions -- about opposing the death penalty; about whether he presided over a "culture of corruption" on the Richmond City Council; and about whether he could be trusted, because his mentor Warner promised not to raise taxes at the same event four years ago, then piloted a budget package that raised $1.4 billion in new revenue.
He said he would carry out the death penalty despite his opposition to it, which he says is rooted in his Catholic faith. He touted Richmond's improvements during his time as mayor, and he said he was not making the same claim as Warner.
"I don't take a no-tax pledge, and I don't take a tax-by-referendum pledge, like my opponent does. I never have, because I take an oath of office, and that's the only oath that I'm going to take," Kaine said.
Kilgore, more focused than at a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate last month that disappointed his supporters, ended each of his segments with a pithy pop at Kaine. But he also dodged the questions more. A staunch opponent of abortion, Kilgore again refused to say what actions he would take if a new Supreme Court were to allow states to outlaw the procedure. Asked whether he would support a law that would criminalize women or their doctors, Kilgore answered, "I do not support the criminalization of women."
Kaine was asked at several points how he could square his moral opposition to capital punishment and abortion with his pledge to carry out the death penalty and refuse to take any action that would restrict freedoms on a woman's right to an abortion.
Kaine again mentioned his faith but said the "Catholic Church doesn't make me cross my fingers when I take the oath of office." He mentioned that voters also had questions about John F. Kennedy before he became the nation's first Catholic president.
Kilgore was ready for that: "Tim Kaine, you're no John F. Kennedy." He was trying to evoke the famous retort from Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to Republican Dan Quayle in their debate, but Jerry Kilgore, well, is no Lloyd Bentsen. The line fell flat.
If the debate is remembered for much, it probably will be for Sabato asking both if they would pledge that at least half of their commercials for the rest of the campaign be positive. "I'll make the pledge, Larry, to stand by my ads," Kilgore said.
"You just heard Jerry Kilgore . . . not even being willing to make a commitment that 51 percent of his campaign from here on out will be positive. That should tell you everything about this candidate," said Kaine, who later added, "I will make the commitment on this stage that well over half my ads will be positive."
The campaign is without bold ideas from either candidate; voters to a great extent will be sorting through those commercials to see what kind of man they want to lead the state.
As soon as the debate ended, a Kaine ad aired. It called Kilgore's attacks on him misleading. It was followed by a Kilgore ad, which showed a cartoon Kaine eating large stacks of tax money.