- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb and his Republican challenger, former Gov. George F. Allen, repeatedly returned to education during their debate at Tysons Corner yesterday, marking it as the make-or-break issue in their race for Mr. Robb's seat.

The two candidates spent much of their nearly hourlong debate before 700 business executives from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce trying to claim the issue as their own.

"I don't believe anything government does, at any level, is more important than education nothing," Mr. Robb said.

He criticized Mr. Allen's education plan centerpiece a $1,000-per-child tax credit for families to pay for education supplies like books and computers, but not tuition as a break mostly for wealthy families. The plan doesn't refund money, and since many low-income families don't pay income tax or pay less than $1,000, it would help them less than higher-income families.

Mr. Robb also said the $30 billion a year the plan would return to families could, in the government's hands, pay for more teachers or security officers in schools.

Mr. Allen responded that the money should be in parents' hands.

"I trust parents to make this very special, individualized, understanding and careful education decision for their children," he said.

Mr. Allen said the plan which he has promised will be his first bill submitted if he's elected will help parents buy computers or pay for Internet access and bridge the so-called "digital divide" between those with and without on-line access.

He also said he would be open to making the credit refundable, so low-income families could get money back, even if they don't pay taxes.

Despite the attacks, Mr. Allen feels he is on comfortable ground with the tax-credit proposal, which polls show resonates well with Virginians.

Mr. Robb, 61, is seeking his third term as senator, after serving in the early 1980s as governor. Mr. Allen, 48, also is a former governor, having served from 1994 to 1998.

Yesterday's debate, which was shown live and replayed later on local cable station NewsChannel 8, followed one in Richmond a mere 16 hours earlier. Sunday's debate was televised on major local stations in Roanoke, Norfolk and Richmond, but was only available delayed and on cable in Northern Virginia. It also had to compete with the Redskins football game against the Giants, as well as the Olympics.

Mr. Robb came out of the box trying to pin Mr. Allen on his pro-life abortion position again, and Mr. Allen's opening remarks focused on transportation a critical issue in vote-rich Northern Virginia. But neither issue stuck, and both men gravitated back to fiscal issues and education.

Both Mr. Robb and Mr. Allen have long records as state executives and as legislators, and by this point in the campaign have grown used to each other.

Yesterday, both were at ease slinging one-liners around.

"If your first bill is going to be a bad bill, I'm not sure you should make such a big deal about it," Mr. Robb said at one point.

At another point, Mr. Allen said, "A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste," inferring that Mr. Robb's 12 years in the Senate were largely devoid of accomplishments.

One of the pithiest exchanges came in response to a question from moderator Tim Russert, who hosts "Meet the Press" on NBC and "Russert" on its cable cousin, CNBC. Mr. Russert asked the candidates how they would handle Social Security and Medicare in the future, given the aging population.

Neither candidate supported raising the retirement age. Mr. Robb talked about the difficulty of solving the problem, but Mr. Allen said a start would be to put the money for each in a "lockbox" so that it's not used to pay for other programs in the general fund.

"What won't do any good is if you have these politicians in Washington diverting these funds and spending them on something other than Social Security," Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Robb replied that the concept of a "lockbox" is "misunderstood across the board."

"Especially by you," Mr. Allen retorted.

But Mr. Robb said he's voted for and against various lockboxes, and said putting Social Security in a lockbox would harm Medicare.

"All of these decisions have consequences and anybody that tries to sell you the answer he just sold you … I've got some swamp land in Florida if you're interested. It just doesn't work," Mr. Robb said.

The two candidates similarly went back and forth on other issues, including their records on crime as governor. Mr. Allen said under Mr. Robb the state's parole rate skyrocketed. Mr. Robb said that under him the crime rate fell by more than the national average decrease, while under Mr. Allen it fell less than the national average.

One new issue was the reluctance of both candidates to sign onto a pledge to discourage expenditures from outside groups like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club or Handgun Control Inc. advocating their positions and attacking the candidate they oppose in the election.

Mr. Russert challenged both men to pledge to reject outside spending. Mr. Robb said he would if it were enforceable, but Mr. Allen simply said it isn't enforceable, and rejected the idea.

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