RICHMOND — In their second televised debate Monday night, former governors George Allen and Timothy M. Kaine clashed over health care, women’s issues and Social Security as they sought to contrast how each would represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate.
The two faced off for an hour-long exchange billed as “The People’s Debate,” focused on issues including Medicare taxes, federal spending and immigration.
Kaine (D) and Allen (R) are fighting to succeed Sen. James Webb (D), who is retiring from the Democratic-controlled chamber. Allen lost the seat to Webb six years ago.
The race in Virginia is among the most closely watched and hotly contested in the country, and the outcome could determine which party controls the Senate. With less than a month to go until Election Day, several polls have suggested that Kaine has opened a single-digit lead over Allen.
While the face-off did not cover much new ground and the candidates avoided any obvious gaffes, both men aimed to present a clear choice to voters during the debate.
Allen attempted to portray Kaine as distracted during his tenure as governor, focused on his role as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during his final year in office.
“How does a governor decide to take on a second job that sends him all over the country while over 100,000 jobs are being lost in Virginia?” asked Allen, who left the governor’s mansion in 1998. “As governor, you only get four years to have a positive impact on people’s lives. You could’ve told the president you needed to give all of your attention to the people of Virginia. You did not give them 100 percent.”
Kaine, who left office in 2010, responded that he was governor during the terms of President George W. Bush and President Obama and worked with two Republican state Houses. “I will always be a partner with the president of the United States, whoever that president is,” Kaine said.
He told viewers that he is the candidate who can bring compromise to Washington and pledged to help end the gridlock in Congress — something he said Allen did not do during his term in the Senate.
“We need folks who know how to compromise and work together,” he said, adding that during Allen’s time in the Senate, spending and deficits increased.
He also sought to cast Allen as a bully, twice mentioning the Republican’s old vow to “knock Democrats’ soft teeth down their whiny throats.”
The debate was hosted by the state’s AARP and the League of Women Voters, and their influence loomed large in the conversation. Both candidates were asked about what they would do to preserve Medicare and Social Security. Allen said he favored raising the eligibility age for people younger than 50 and reducing benefits for wealthier seniors.
Kaine said he opposed privatization of either program.
Women’s issues were also a focus. When the candidates were asked how they would address the gender gap in pay, Allen said creating jobs is the best way to help women.
Kaine said there have been “efforts to block women’s progress” in 2012, especially regarding women’s health care.
“You can’t have a strong economy for women if you take their choices away,” Kaine said, adding that he supported paycheck equity for women and opposed “personhood” state legislation and a bill that would have required women to get an ultrasound before abortions.
Allen said his support of personhood legislation — which would define life as beginning at conception — is an accountability issue: It would be a mechanism for punishing people who attack pregnant women and harm their unborn child.
Both candidates said they supported visa reform, but they split on the issue of allowing children of illegal immigrants to remain in the country while pursuing an education.
“What the president did is he ignored the law, and rather than take cases on an individual basis, he’s put a whole class of people exempt from the law,” Allen said. “That will make it more difficult to get real immigration reform. . . . If you reward illegal behavior, you’ll only get more of it.”
Kaine said he backs the Dream Act and supports stiff financial penalties for illegal immigrants, who could work off their fines and get in line for citizenship.
With the U.S. Supreme Court set to decide whether to allow affirmative action to factor into admission to public colleges and universities, the candidates were asked where they stood on the issue in Virginia.
Allen said he favored “affirmative recruitment,” but not at the expense of denying qualified people an opportunity. Kaine said he hoped the court “would affirm that it is okay for a public institution to try to make sure that their student body looks like the state does.”
In his opening remarks, Kaine voiced his support for public broadcasting, which came under fire during last week’s presidential debate when Republican nominee Mitt Romney signaled that he would support cutting federal funding of public television.
“I’m a huge public broadcasting fan,” Kaine said at the debate, held at WCVE Studios, one of two PBS stations in Richmond. “I pledge tonight not to fire Big Bird or defund public broadcasting.”
The Senate candidates’ final debate is scheduled for Oct. 18 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Ben Pershing and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.