RICHMOND | The top candidates for Virginia's governorship came together Tuesday for the first time, giving an opening glimpse of what is expected to be a hotly contested race next year.
The 90-minute panel discussion at the Capitol, organized by the Associated Press, focused largely on the economy and transportation. It involved Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the race's lone Republican, and Democrats state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Delegate Brian J. Moran and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe
Though largely cordial, the discussion turned heated when Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Deeds sparred over their support for a statetransportation tax package that would have generated hundreds of millions in revenue through abusive-driver fees.
However, the Virginia Supreme Court in February declared key parts of the legislative package unconstitutional.
Mr. McDonnell pointed out he was a key negotiator in getting the legislation through the General Assembly and that Mr. Deeds voted for the package.
Mr. Deeds said he did so only after Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, amended it.
Mr. McAuliffe, the former chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, who is exploring a gubernatorial run, seized the spotlight as the two argued.
"If you're tired of all the quarreling, I'm your guy," said Mr. McAuliffe, who plans to announce Jan. 7 whether he will run.
Mr. McAuliffe also said the state needs federal assistance to help solve such transportation problems as commuter gridlock and called for public-private partnerships.
Mr. Moran, of Alexandria, said he supported Mr. Kaine's failed $1 billion transportation plan earlier this year and called for better land use and an investment in high-speed rail.
Mr. Deeds called for a statewide transportation solution and said he previously backed employer tax credits for telecommuting and public transportation.
"We have to have a vision for transportation, not just a plan," Mr. Deeds said.
Mr. McDonnell and Mr. McAuliffe said they would not raise taxes to increase revenue for the state, which is facing a $2.5 billion budget shortfall.
Mr. McAuliffe said it's important to expand the economy through investments in alternative energy and said he would go line-by-line through the state's budget.
Mr. McDonnell also said officials need to look at the government programs that are not working.
"We have a spending problem more than we have a taxation problem," he said. "I think everybody would agree that when you are in a recession, the worst thing you can do is try to tax your way to prosperity."
Mr. Moran called for investing in transportation infrastructure and in the energy industry. He and Mr. Deeds said nothing should be off limits for budget cuts in the midst of a national recession.
Though policies will define the race as it evolves, the biggest intrigue now is who will emerge as the Democratic candidate after the party's June primary.
In addition, Mr. McAuliffe's entry would likely elevate campaign spending, since he is a former national party chairman and remains a prolific fundraiser with a vast network of contacts.
Mr. Deeds has said Mr. McAuliffe's entry into the race would not change what he needs to do to win.
Mr. Moran made a similar statement Tuesday.
"I don't think money or having been on a statewide ticket before makes any difference, frankly, to my candidacy," he said.
The state's political dynamics also could play a role.
President-elect Barack Obama's win marked the first time since 1964 that Virginia has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.
However, the state has elected a governor of the opposite party since the late 1970s.
Bob Holsworth, a political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the state's gubernatorial race is likely to garner national attention.
"The national parties are going to see it as the first referendum on Obama," he said. "If Obama doesn't do very well in his first year, that's going to help McDonnell."