- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The Virginia governor's race has been substantially altered by last week's terrorist attacks, prompting Republican Mark L. Earley and Democrat Mark R. Warner in their debate yesterday to argue about who can best lead the state through whatever challenges lie ahead.

"The events clearly in the last 10 days have reordered not only the priorities of America, the people of Virginia, but have clearly reordered and determined the priorities of the next governor of Virginia," Mr. Earley said. "Because our people have been attacked, the most immediate priority of the next governor is going to be the protection and safety of our people. Having served as attorney general for four years, elected in 1997, I want to put that experience to work in protecting our people."

Mr. Warner, a businessman who has never held public office, countered that he is the best candidate to manage the state's finances and economy now.

"Now more than ever, we must elect a governor who will plan for the challenge of our future, a governor with the leadership to assure the safety of our people, leadership to build a strong economy [and] return fiscal accountability to our state government," Mr. Warner said.

The debate was held in a Falls Church hotel ballroom in front of members of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. They applauded Mr. Warner's announcement that he would allow Northern Virginia to hold a referendum to impose a sales-tax increase, with the money going toward transportation.

"I trust the people of Northern Virginia to be able to make that decision," he said of the referendum, which is a critical element of his $2.25 billion transportation package.

Mr. Earley didn't close the door on a referendum, but said tax increases aren't the best idea right now.

"We have our president, we have Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress saying the last thing we should be talking about, and pushing today, is a tax increase," he said.

The debate's most pointed exchange came when the candidates argued over credibility and trustworthiness.

Mr. Earley said Mr. Warner has only recently begun to support Republican-driven programs like abolishing parole and cutting the car tax.

"Leadership involves getting it right every once in a while at the beginning," he said.

That prompted censure from Mr. Warner, who called the charges "scurrilous" and said they were the mark of a negative campaign without an agenda for Virginia.

At other times, the two were only separated by degrees of difference on issues like stem-cell research, building a "techway" crossing of the Potomac River and reopening Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Virginia is an increasingly Republican state, and Mr. Earley eagerly wrapped himself in the accomplishments of the last two Republican governors and basked in the popularity of President Bush, Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III and Virginia's two Republican U.S. senators, John W. Warner and George F. Allen.

"I don't believe now is any time to be shifting in midstream, at a time of national crisis," Mr. Earley said.

Mr. Warner, too, praised the president for his handling of the attacks; he also commended the other Republicans, particularly for their leadership in trying to get Reagan Airport re-opened. He also several times mentioned his work on nonprofit organizations alongside Mr. Allen and current Republican Lt. Gov. John H. Hager.

Mr. Earley, 47, and Mr. Warner, 46, will meet for two more debates on Oct. 3 in Richmond and Oct. 7 in Roanoke. Unlike yesterday's debate, those two debates will have wide television coverage.

Libertarian candidate William Redpath is also on the ballot, but isn't part of the debates.

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