Virginia's two leading candidates for governor faced each other Saturday in their first campaign debate, clashing repeatedly over whether the tax increases that roiled state politics last year were necessary.
During their 93-minute exchange, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Jerry W. Kilgore also aggressively criticized each other's records on such issues as the death penalty, abortion and gun rights.
The candidates, who have rarely been seen together during their campaigns for the state's top office, began with a quick handshake, then took their places at lecterns about 25 feet apart in a massive, pink ballroom at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Watching them was an audience of 300 lawyers, who were attending the annual convention of the Virginia Bar Association, sponsor of the debate that has become a political tradition over the past two decades.
Kaine accused Kilgore of undermining support for public services by opposing the tax-and-spending compromise that ended last year's budget standoff in the General Assembly.
"We cannot take the progress we have made over the past four years and put it in the hands of the most persistent and vigorous opponent of that progress," Kaine said.
Kilgore did not give an inch. The former attorney general said the state's roaring economy proves that the tax increases, designed to raise $1.5 billion over two years, were unnecessary. And he warned several times that Kaine would try to increase the sales, income and gas taxes.
"You can take to the bank what he's going to do," Kilgore said. "He's going to raise your taxes."
Both men answered questions without hesitation, having prepared for weeks with stand-ins representing their opponent. They looked at each other only briefly, even during a section of the debate reserved for direct questions between them.
Kaine, the lieutenant governor, described himself as the heir to the centrist philosophy of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who is barred by Virginia's one-term limit from running in the Nov. 8 election.
On the death penalty, Kilgore accused Kaine of secretly planning to offer clemency to all death row inmates, as governors in Illinois and New Mexico have done. Kaine said he was personally opposed to the death penalty but would use the clemency power sparingly.
In response to a direct question from Kilgore, Kaine said he would likely oppose efforts to expand the death penalty to gang leaders who order slayings.
"I generally don't believe that expansion of the death penalty is the way to fight crime," Kaine said, adding that his support for Project Exile, an award-winning program that targets gun crimes, makes him a "crime fighter."
Kilgore called Exile a "federal takeover" of Richmond's crime problem while Kaine was mayor. Kilgore said Kaine "got an F rating by the [National Rifle Association] and was called by the NRA, their words not mine, an enemy of gun rights."
Both candidates sidestepped questions about whether they would seek greater restrictions on abortion. Kaine said he opposes abortion but would not "criminalize a woman's health decisions." Kilgore said he supports "reasonable safeguards" and accused Kaine of flip-flopping on the issue.
The candidates debated hundreds of miles from Virginia's populous regions and without the presence of television cameras to carry their messages beyond the opulence of a glamorous resort.
But both campaigns nonetheless described the debate as a crucial moment in a race that has 115 days left.
The debate offered a chance to distill campaign messages and themes that strategists have been testing for months in television ads, stump speeches and news releases. The goal was also to influence media coverage by sparking the interest of reporters and television correspondents.
And perhaps most important was the chance to rattle an opponent's confidence with a well-placed attack line or a snappy comeback.
In previous forums, Kaine had undermined Kilgore's composure. But Saturday, it was Kilgore who was more aggressive, lashing out at Kaine's record in his opening statement and repeatedly using his answers to criticize the Democrat's record.
Kilgore said several times that Richmond schools were "the second worst in the state" while Kaine was mayor. Kaine responded that the schools improved dramatically during his tenure.
Kilgore repeatedly returned to the issue of taxes and promised never to allow a tax increase unless voters first have a chance to approve it in a referendum.
"I didn't support the largest tax increase in Virginia history, and I'm proud," Kilgore said.
Political observers said Kilgore's strategy appeared simple: to prevent Kaine from claiming the political center on several hot-button social issues.
"Kilgore [tried] to position Kaine in that liberal corner on taxes, on guns and on gay rights," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "When you put those three together, it's tough for a Democrat. Kaine has to find a way out of that box."
Kaine said several times that Kilgore has failed to show leadership on issues like the state budget, education and transportation. He said Kilgore's insistence on tax referendums would trade Virginia's government management "for a California-style system of government by referendum that has utterly failed."
Several of those watching the debate said they were impressed by how Kaine consistently took Kilgore to task over the Republican's opposition to the 2004 tax plan.
"I thought [Kaine] did a really good job in articulating that the state has made a lot of progress since last year," said Robert Flax, a Richmond lawyer.
Kaine's most passionate moment came during a discussion of his Catholic upbringing and the effect of his religious beliefs on his political positions regarding the death penalty and abortion.
"What Jerry tries to do is suggest, again and again, that because [a politician] has a religious belief, you can't trust him," Kaine said. "I won't let anybody push me around for my religious view or criticize me for them."
The unheard voice at the debate was that of independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator who tried in vain to win a place on the stage. Kaine had said he would debate Potts, but Kilgore refused, threatening to drop out of the event if Potts was included.
After the debate, Potts telephoned reporter after reporter and called Kilgore a "spineless, weak-kneed" candidate.
Potts also joined the criticism of Kaine's position on the death penalty, saying he would have asked whether Kaine's religious beliefs would "interfere in any way with executing inmates on death row." He called Kilgore's plan for regional transportation referendums "a cockamamie idea."