Kaine, Allen get off to testy start in first debate for Virginia Senate seat

RICHMOND — Virginia’s high-stakes Senate race got off to a testy start Wednesday, as the two candidates took shots at each other’s records on government spending, energy production and the economy.

It was the first debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, and it took place in the state Capitol building, where each man once served as governor.

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The two are well-known in the state and nationally. Kaine was governor from 2006 to 2010 and then Democratic National Committee chairman until recently, while Allen was senator from 2001 to 2007 and before that served as governor and congressman.

Fiscal issues dominated the 90-minute event as each candidate tried to paint the other as an irresponsible big spender while defending his own record.

Both candidates came off as seasoned debaters, though Allen had more stumbles. He dodged a direct answer when Kaine asked him why he’d voted to increase his own pay, failed to provide the rate for his proposed national flat tax and fumbled through an explanation of how his “personhood amendment” — which would define life as beginning at conception — would not ban such contraceptives as the morning-after pill.

One issue that came up is likely one Allen hopes voters forget: At a 2006 campaign event, he called a Democratic staffer shooting a video “macaca,” which was seen as a racial slur. He has repeatedly apologized for the comment, which likely cost him reelection that year. 

When asked about the moment, he reiterated that he was sorry for the remark before moving on to energy issues and attacking Kaine for backing President Obama on climate-change legislation.

Kaine credited Allen for apologizing but pointed out a series of other charged partisan remarks Allen had made, including a promise to metaphorically knock Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whining throats” shortly after he took over as governor in 1994.

“There’s a name-calling and bullying aspect to this which is in very long supply in Washington,” Kaine said. “It’s not who Virginia is.”

Obama, who won Virginia in 2008 and will compete hard there again next year, was mentioned several times.

Kaine grew red-faced and attempted to cut Allen off when the former senator was critical of the president, leading to a flustered exchange where both candidates grew visibly agitated.

Allen also presented a graph showing how the national debt ballooned under Obama, whose policies Kaine championed as head of the DNC. Kaine retaliated by saying Allen contributed to the economic crash by voting for programs without paying for them while he was in Congress.

And Allen had one more shot at Kaine regarding his ties to Obama, who has low approval ratings in the state and nationally. He said Kaine had let Virginians down when he accepted the DNC position, “the most partisan job in the country,” rather than focusing exclusively on his work as governor. For a time, Kaine served in both jobs.

But Kaine was critical of Allen’s ties to Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist has been under fire from national Democrats, who claim he has too much influence on the GOP. 

Kaine chastised Allen for signing the group’s “no new taxes” pledge. He said Allen “put that pledge of allegiance before his oath of office.”

Polling shows the race is neck-and-neck between the two, with Kaine holding a narrow lead.

Allen still has to capture the GOP nomination, but he is the favorite to win and none of his primary opponents were at the event. The Associated Press, which sponsored the debate, required that any candidate who wished to appear have one-fifth as much money as his or her party’s front-runner and reach 15 percent in at least one public poll.

That led Tea Party supporters — angry that their candidate, Jamie Radtke, wasn’t included — to protest the debate.