ROANOKE — Former Sen. George Allen stuck to a mostly positive message of economic growth, energy independence and individual freedom Saturday, largely ignoring jabs from his GOP rivals in the first debate featuring all four Republican candidates running for Virginia's U.S. Senate seat.
Mr. Allen, though he shared the stage with his three Republican opponents, kept his focus on Democratic nominee Tim Kaine and President Obama.
"I'm optimistic about America's future," Mr. Allen said during the forum hosted by the Republican Party of Virginia at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Roanoke. "We all need to keep smiling. You know why? We're helping our fellow Americans catch their dreams."
Mr. Allen, a former Virginia governor seeking to reclaim the Senate seat he lost in 2006 to retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, did not pull punches when criticizing items like Mr. Obama's health care overhaul, the cap-and-trade energy proposal supported by many Democrats, or "Washington liberals."
"When I left the Senate, the annual deficit was about $160 billion, on the course to getting to a balanced budget," he told reporters afterward. "Talk about how much of spending is being borrowed, and the estimates are about 33 cents of every dollar is being borrowed. In 2006, it was 5.9 cents. [There's] been an exponential increase in spending. The spending has been an agent for this stimulus spending, which was promised to create all these jobs and has not. Tim Kaine is a supporter of that."
Tea party activist Jamie Radtke lambasted Mr. Allen during the debate for his spending record in the U.S. Senate — as she has done since entering the race.
"If we do not deal with spending, nothing else matters," she said, alluding to Mr. Allen when she blasted "fiscal irresponsibility of career politicians in both parties who say they're for a balanced-budget amendment but then turn and vote for trillions of dollars in spending."
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, who nearly won the party's nomination for Senate in 2008 over former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, also trained his sights on Mr. Kaine.
He repeated his mantra that he is the only candidate in the race with a successful history of directly taking on Mr. Kaine — and winning. Mr. Marshall got struck down part of a massive 2007 transportation package Mr. Kaine helped engineer when he was governor. The delegate successfully sued the state over unelected taxing authorities that were part of the plan but ultimately deemed unconstitutional.
"Taxation without representation is still illegal in Virginia because I sued," he said. "A Bob Marshall win on June 12th means a big headache for Tim Kaine on June 13th."
Chesapeake Bishop E.W. Jackson, a political neophyte, was the most rhetorically impressive of the four and made the case that America needs to return to its constitutional traditions.
"The sun is now rising in America again, and it will shine brighter than it ever has shone before and we are going to come together and rebuild this nation and restore the values that we hold dear," he said.
The candidates largely agreed on many of the panelists' questions — including, notably, whether they would offer an endorsement of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. None of them stepped forward.
Mr. Marshall pointed out that Mr. Romney is not the official nominee yet.
"Americans should be more concerned with what Barack Obama does with our money than what Mitt Romney does with his money," he said.
Mr. Allen said he wouldn't offer a formal endorsement but that it looked as if Mr. Romney would be the nominee, and Mr. Jackson said that the party "can't afford to splinter" and had to "make sure we defeat Tim Kaine and Barack Obama."
Mr. Kaine's campaign said the debate offered a distinct contrast between his candidacy and that of any of the Republicans. Spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine did not mention Mr. Allen by name, though he has been in the crosshairs of the campaign and the state Democratic Party for some time.
"Today's debate demonstrates that voters in November will have a clear choice between Tim Kaine's forward-looking policies to accelerate job growth and a return to tired strategies that led America into the greatest recession in 70 years," Ms. Hoffine said. "The approach the Republican candidates advocate would devastate federal investments in education, defense, and infrastructure that bolster and grow Virginia's economy."
Mr. Kaine held a roundtable meeting Saturday morning in Roanoke with seniors and retirees to discuss Social Security and Medicare before appearing at a women's rights rally in Richmond.
The debate came a week before Mr. Obama kicks off his own campaign with stops in Virginia and Ohio — underscoring how important the commonwealth will be in November, both for the president's re-election prospects and for determining which party ends up holding the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
The president's party currently holds a 53-47 edge, counting independents Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with the Democrats. Republicans must pick up a net of four seats to win outright control of the chamber, but Democrats are defending 23 seats, while Republicans have to protect only 10.
While Virginia Republicans have yet to coalesce around a U.S. Senate candidate — or, apparently, a presidential candidate — Mr. Obama is likely to prove a potent unifier for the party.
"Who, like Ronald Reagan, when the political insiders and experts say, 'Uh, don't call it an evil empire;' Uh, don't say 'break down this wall,' will stand up and say liberalism is a wall that has been built for the last generation in this country and it is an evil empire that must be brought down?" Mr. Jackson railed during the debate. "This is not about left against right. This is about good against evil."
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