- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

RICHMOND Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb and former Gov. George F. Allen traded harsh barbs at their final debate in Richmond last night, an acrimonious affair that matched the tone of their hotly contested Senate race.

The debate, the fourth between the two men since the beginning of August, comes as recent polls show Mr. Allen, a Republican, still holding a slim lead over the incumbent Democrat.

At the outset, both men again laid out their vast differences.

Mr. Robb claimed the ground of fiscal responsibility and said Mr. Allen's education tax credit will squander the nation's budget surplus.

"In short, George has a math problem. He's making promises he can't keep and America can't afford," Mr. Robb said.

But Mr. Allen saw Mr. Robb's opposition a different way.

"He believes that if we just raise taxes and send more money to Washington that the federal government will solve all our problems," Mr. Allen said.

At times, similarities to the debating styles of the presidential candidates were striking.

Mr. Allen looked at the camera the whole time, while Mr. Robb often talked directly to Mr. Allen, showing only his profile to the camera. He also occasionally chuckled at Mr. Allen's answers.

Mr. Allen also tried to tie Mr. Robb to President Clinton and portrayed himself as someone who can work to get things done a message Texas Gov. George W. Bush has pushed in his bid for the presidency.

The format for last night's debate was odd.

Questions were posed to a particular candidate with no chance for the other to respond or rebut the answer.

"We've eliminated all the puff-ball questions because one of these two men will be casting thousands of votes as Virginia's senator over the next six years," said Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor who moderated the debate.

The questions were pointed and wide-ranging from the man who wanted to know if Mr. Robb's votes to decrease defense spending led to the recent terrorist attack on the USS Cole, to Mr. Sabato, who wanted to know whether Mr. Allen is senatorial, given remarks like one he made at the 1994 state GOP convention, when he said Republicans should "enjoy knocking [Democrats'] soft teeth down their whining throats."

The debate was broadcast on NBC affiliates throughout the state, including WRC-TV (Channel 4) in Washington, but it had to compete with the tail end of yesterday's Washington Redskins game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The two men covered much of the ground they trod before abortion, guns, Mr. Allen's tax credit and the two men's records on transportation when they were governor.

But many of the questions were about social issues.

Mr. Robb, asked whether he would vote to rescind the Boy Scouts' charter for their policy of excluding homosexual scout masters, said he didn't think that was the federal government's role. But he went on to say he disagreed with the Boy Scouts' position.

In response to other questions, Mr. Allen said he supported hate crimes legislation and would include sexual orientation in federal civil rights law. He also said he would support a law to ban racial profiling, though he said both initiatives are most important at the state level.

The best back-and-forth between the candidates came after Mr. Sabato challenged them to forgo negative advertising.

Mr. Robb said he would if Mr. Allen would.

But Mr. Allen refused to answer whether he would, and said he wouldn't trust Mr. Robb to uphold his end of the bargain anyway. He said Mr. Robb paid a $12,000 fine in 1994 for coordinating campaign expenses with interest groups.

Yesterday's debate was the sharpest yet.

Mr. Robb was somewhat flustered in the first debate, at the Homestead resort in early August. In the second debate, in Richmond, he was much more focused, often posing incisive questions about Mr. Allen's proposals. In the third debate, in Tysons Corner, it became clear Mr. Allen's education plan would be a prime focus of the rest of the campaign.

Still, debates play a smaller role in this race than in the presidential election. Mr. Allen and Mr. Robb, both former governors, are already well known to most voters who are paying attention to the race. And the debates haven't had wide viewership. Yesterday's was the first debate aired live on a network in the Washington area, and the second debate the only other one aired around the state competed with a Redskins' Sunday night game.

Earlier in the season, staffers from both campaigns admitted the debates were unlikely to make a big difference in the race. Instead, they predicted, the battle would be fought through mailings and over the airwaves through commercials.

That turned out to be a good prediction.

Both sides produced new ads last week. The state Democratic Party broadcast two new ads and bought time for yet a third ad, all in one day. The Republican Party and the Allen campaign responded with their own ads.

Also, interest groups continued to have their say, with the National Rifle Association weighing in for Mr. Allen, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighing in against Mr. Robb, and Voters for Choice, an abortion rights group, weighing in against Mr. Allen.

The Virginia Senate race is considered the Republicans' best chance to pick off a Democratic seat. Mr. Allen has held a lead in the polls throughout the campaign, but Democrats have poured money into the race recently.

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