Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial gab-o-rama -- not one debate, but two, and neither with all three candidates in the room at the same time -- may not illuminate this year's proceedings, but it should be reasonably entertaining.
The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce will stage the first contest, which pits Democrat Tim Kaine against Republican Jerry Kilgore. The redoubtable host of NBC's "Meet the Press," Tim Russert, will moderate.
The day's next debate will take place in the same Tysons Corner hotel, and it will be sponsored by a coalition of educational organizations and moderated by Kojo Nnamdi, host of "The Virginia Politics Hour" on WAMU-FM. It will be sans Kilgore, but with independent Russ Potts. Only Kaine gets double debate duty.
Why such a conflation of venues and personalities?
Because Kilgore regards Potts as a Republican apostate and refuses to share a stage with him. The calculus of whether Kaine or Kilgore loses votes to Potts also figures in. You can be sure that if Kilgore thought it might work to his advantage, he would piggyback Potts to the podium.
So Potts will have his moment in the second debate. But what if he up and whacks Kaine? The feisty senator from Winchester doesn't have a lot to lose, and although he despises Kilgore, he might figure that he doesn't need to be Alphonse to Kaine's Gaston.
Another question: Why is Potts involved at all? Is he, as one supercilious political pundit charges, the "editorial writers' candidate?"
Well, yes, a bit. Some of the state's leading dailies have seen Potts as a truth-teller and have promoted his participation in the debates as a partial antidote to the poll-tested risk-avoidance that has characterized the campaigns of the two major-party candidates.
In other words, Potts would mix it up a bit, and he might even force the Democrat and the Republican off script. How lovely that would be.
Take Kaine. He's the smart one in the race, widely regarded as a decent chap, who appears convinced that if populism can work for the Republicans, it can work for him, too. So he says he wants to "protect the transportation trust fund" and provide "property tax relief," knowing full well that the first is a dodge and the second an entree to local fiscal havoc.
Kaine's stronger bid lies in his claim to be the logical successor to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). "Don't turn back" has become the rallying cry of the Democrats generally, and that refers to the 12 years of free-lunch budgeting and political turmoil that preceded Warner.
Warner, of course, cannot succeed himself under Virginia law, and a single four-year term does not a revolution make. For all he has accomplished, much remains undone and unfixed, and where Kaine could help himself is to clarify his intentions going forward.
What, for instance, about tax reform?
Warner mucked around with the idea, but the essential and thoroughly obsolete fiscal arrangement between Virginia state and local governments remains intact. Want to discover the source of the pressure on property taxes? This is where to start looking.
How about Virginia's economic future?
Consider the spectacle of Virginia Beach. This county that calls itself a city is one the most Republican enclaves in Virginia, a supposed bastion of conservatism and free enterprise. Yet now it is in a state of apoplexy about the potential loss of its favorite source of federal largess, the Oceana Naval Air Station.
Okay, 12,000 jobs are at stake. That's a problem. But a future based on just keeping the Pentagon money spigot wide open, one might conclude, lacks appeal. How about an indigenous economy that locals can shape on their own instead? How about some rugged individualism that doesn't leave Virginia leaders constantly beseeching the federal money masters from north of the Potomac?
But, then, why worry about the people of Virginia Beach? They're all going to be swamped when the next Katrina-sized hurricane rolls up the Atlantic Coast and turns in to Virginia. The mad rush will be on to get out in time, but it won't last long, because all the emergency escape routes -- through tunnels and over bridges -- will jam in about 15 minutes. You know, just like on a normal day.
Which brings up the subject of transportation. Kaine doesn't have a plan to ease highway congestion that holds up to scrutiny, and Kilgore's plan actually would make things worse. The Republican wants to divert the state's operational funds (the money that pays for public education, primarily) into road construction and pass the buck on decision-making to new "regional transportation authorities."
And how much legislative support for his transportation plan has Kilgore inspired in the Republican-led General Assembly?
To date, zero. The Republican elders in the state Senate have even announced that Kilgore's proposal will die a-bornin'.
Meanwhile, Potts stands off to the side, irascible and a nuisance to all, saying, "Don't mess with local finances. Build roads. Get on with the future."
How can you not like a guy like that?