It’s hard to imagine that a Saturday morning debate in the dead of summer can be a game-changer in a statewide election.
But it is the dead of summer, so news-hungry reporters will flock to The Homestead resort in Hot Springs on Saturday and hang on every word exchanged between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine in their high-stakes U.S. Senate race.
The Virginia Bar Association, which holds its annual summer meeting in the Alleghany Highlands, is sponsoring the debate. CNN’s Candy Crowley will serve as the moderator.
This won’t be the first debate between Allen and Kaine. The former governors went head-to-head last December in front of state reporters and editors at the Capitol in Richmond. But the political climate has heated up along with the weather in the battleground state of Virginia, so let’s see if some rhetorical thunderbolts rumble though Bath County this weekend.
The VBA debate has become a staple of statewide elections in tradition-bound Virginia. Though they rarely produce shock-and-awe moments, the debates can help set the tone for the fall campaign and shed light on a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
Consider Allen’s first VBA debate, a face-off with Democrat Mary Sue Terry in their 1993 gubernatorial contest. Roanoke Times reporter Rob Eure covered that debate at the Greenbrier resort in While Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and wrote:
“Armed with statistics and prepared one-liners, the pair continued their war over who is the toughest on crime, from drunken driving to gun control to parole reform.
“But the debate over those issues produced no new positions. . .”
Allen promoted his plan to abolish parole, while Terry said her plan to impose a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases would be an effective crime deterrent. Terry made have made the most news at that event by repudiating then-President Bill Clinton’s proposals to raise taxes and allow homosexuals to serve in the military. Allen, an early underdog that race, went on to win the election handily.
Allen and Democrat Chuck Robb met at The Homestead during the 2000 Senate campaign. Allen aggressively criticized Robb’s record and repeatedly accused him of supporting “Clinton values” over “Virginia values.” And when Robb tried to tout his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Allen shot back: ”Chuck, if you’re a fiscal conservative, then Hillary Clinton’s a New Yorker.”
In his account of the debate, Roanoke Times reporter Todd Jackson also described this exchange between Robb and Allen on abortion:
“Robb asked Allen on Saturday if he supports a woman’s right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.
“‘I think you go to scientific evidence,’ Allen said. ‘If there are measurable brain waves, a beating heart, the fetus is sensitive to touch, in-utero thumb-sucking, at that stage of development there could be an interest on the part of the citizens to protect that unborn child. Prior to that stage, it would be the mother’s decision.’”
Allen returned to The Homestead in 2006 to debate Democrat Jim Webb. If nothing else, that event proved that a summertime debate gaffe isn’t fatal. At one point, Allen quizzed Webb about plans to expand the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area in Portsmouth. Webb confessed that he didn’t know anything about the project, which led Allen to claim after the debate that Webb was “not conversant on the important issues.” Webb later dismissed what he called a “gotcha” question.
Though it got little attention at the time, Webb called in that debate for a modern-day GI Bill that would provide post-9/11 veterans full college tuition benefits and said to Allen: “I would hope you would put the bill in next week.” In a response that Democrats continue to use against Allen, the Republican replied, “If the Senate didn’t move at the pace of a wounded sea slug, I would.”
But the 2006 VBA debate quickly became a distant memory. A few weeks later in far Southwest Virginia, Allen uttered him infamous “macaca” insult that changed the trajectory of the campaign and contributed to his defeat.
Kaine’s performance at the 2005 VBA gubernatorial debate at the Greenbrier was as much about tone as it was substance. Kaine, then the lieutenant governor, was battling Republican Jerry Kilgore, then the attorney general. Kilgore was aggressive in challenging Kaine on the issue of the death penalty, arguing that Kaine’s past public statements against capital punishment raised doubts about whether the Democrat would block executions.
Kaine, a Roman Catholic, said throughout that campaign that he had a faith-based objection to capital punishment but would not commute a death sentence unless presented with evidence of a defendant’s innocence. Kaine pushed back hard on the issue in that debate, sending a message that he wouldn’t let Kilgore put him on the defensive.
“I’m not going to change my religious views to get elected to public office,” Kaine said, “And I won’t let anyone push me around for my religious views.”
What issues will dominate this year’s debate? Will there be a defining moment that alters this neck-and-neck race? Surely it won’t be a summer snoozer. Stay tuned. Please check back with Blue Ridge Caucus and roanoke.com for updates on Saturday.
– Michael Sluss