Sen,. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Monday had the exact debate he did not want to have, one focused on his own role in talking about jobs for the children of a key Democratic state senator. The Post reports:

In the pair’s third and final campaign debate in Richmond on Monday, the Republican underdog used his very first question as an opportunity to bring up Warner’s recently revealed job talks with the son of former state senator Phillip P. Puckett. Pivoting from an unrelated question on voting rights, Gillespie said Virginia’s voters deserve answers from Warner if he discussed judicial appointments in exchange for Puckett remaining in his seat.
“This is very serious in terms of the federal bench — has a big impact on our lives, and we need to make sure the qualified people are put on the bench, and I would never play politics with recommending judicial appointments,” Gillespie said.
Warner responded that he simply called Puckett’s son to “brainstorm” potential jobs for the senator’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron.

Let’s get this straight: A U.S. senator calls up the child of a state senator on the verge of a critical decision as to whether resign from the senate (and thereby shift control to the Republicans) right around the same time the Democratic governor’s chief of staff Paul Reagan also left a message about a potential state job for the state senator’s daughter. (Unlike Warner, Reagan has since apologized.) So many important people playing career guidance counselor to the same state senator’s children — odd, isn’t it? Really, voters can tell when pols are trying to evade blame for misbehaving, and this sure seemed like just such an episode.

Frankly, Warner seemed ill at ease and frustrated that the pesky issue of corruption had popped up on his stroll to re-election. Gillespie did not overplay his hand, abiding by the rule that you never interfere with an opponent in the midst of self-destructing. (Afterwards Gillespie told reporters, “The senator did not respond to the questions that I think are out there. This brainstorming session, was that just a coincidence that came at the same time as the call from the governor’s chief of staff. I’ll leave that for others to decide, but I do find it deeply troubling.”)

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The Warner-Puckett incident has become an issue while Virginians are still steaming over the scandal that enveloped former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. A new poll shows 60 percent of respondents want him to go to jail following to his conviction on 11 counts of corruption. The Post quotes Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political science at Mary Washington: “These results demonstrate the depth of voter anger with politicians who are thought to take better care of the well-connected than of ordinary citizens. Lawmakers ignore this resentment at their peril.” Indeed.

Warner was clearly trying to be aggressive, “accusing” Gillespie of signing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax hike pledge. Happy to be labeled a tax hike opponent, Gillespie explained he didn’t sign the pledge, but instead had explained to Norquist’s group his opposition to tax hikes. Gillespie attacked Warner as a rubber stamp for Obama; Warner attacked Gillespie as a former lobbyist.

But Gillespie had done what he intended — drawn blood and forced Warner to descend into a fight about the gap between his reputation (a carry-over from Warner’s days as governor) and his actions. If the race narrows soon, it will be because Warner has been tarnished by a skilled and persistent opponent.

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