Republican George Allen on Monday escalated his portrayal of Democratic Senate rival Tim Kaine as a would-be serial tax hiker and accused him of letting his attention drift away from Virginians during his final year as governor.
Firing back, Mr. Kaine repeatedly pressed Mr. Allen for more specifics on questions about women's health and looming defense cuts in the candidates' latest debate in the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Jim Webb.
The wide-ranging debate in Richmond, hosted by the Virginia chapters of the AARP and the League of Women Voters, also touched on Medicare and Social Security, the recent events in Libya, illegal immigration, the federal deficit and President Obama's health care overhaul.
The race between the two former Virginia governors and political heavyweights could very well determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate this year. The two men have been running neck-and-neck for nearly two years, though Mr. Kaine appears to be putting a bit of daylight between himself and Mr. Allen in the most recent polls. The latest Real Clear Politics average shows the Democrat with a 4.7-point lead.
Mr. Allen — who headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the early 2000s — said in his opening statement that Mr. Kaine's decision to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during his final year as governor is "really the great unanswered question in this campaign."
"How does a governor decide to take on a second job that sends him all over the country giving partisan speeches while over 100,000 jobs are lost in Virginia?" Mr. Allen asked. "If Tim had been listening to the people of Virginia, who were really facing tough times, he might not have proposed raising taxes on working people, working women, seniors and small-business owners, as well as people earning as little as $17,000 a year."
Mr. Kaine, though, said that his final year might have been his best one in office, listing accomplishments such as banning smoking in restaurants and preserving open space in the state. His campaign also pointed to positive statements from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and a staffer for former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, also a Republican, about Mr. Kaine's serving as chairman.
Mr. Kaine, meanwhile, pushed back directly on multiple questions when he thought Mr. Allen was not being specific enough.
"No one works harder than women," Mr. Allen said in response to a question about the gap in pay between men and women, noting that there are 5.5 million women currently unemployed and many more who are underemployed or living in poverty. "What we need to do is to make sure we are doing the right things to get this economy moving."
Mr. Kaine said he and Mr. Allen were far apart on the issue.
"I support paycheck equity for women in the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair] Pay Act. George Allen has refused to support them," he said. "I support Family Medical Leave Act for women caring for their loved ones. George Allen repeatedly voted against it. And I stand against ultrasound legislation, personhood legislation and efforts to take away women's rights to receive contraception at their workplaces. George Allen and I are in very different places on this … you can't have a strong economy for women if you take their choices away."
Later in the debate, Mr. Allen said he would never prohibit contraceptives, but added that affording employers religious freedom and barring contraceptives mandates were not incompatible with that.
On Social Security, Mr. Allen said he would be open to phasing in an increase in the age eligibility for those currently under 50 and providing income adjustments for seniors who may not need the money as much as others. He also used the subject to once again slam Mr. Kaine, who favored allowing the payroll-tax cap on Social Security to be adjusted upward.
"The one thing we shouldn't be doing, though, and that is what Tim Kaine tried to do as governor, and that is raise taxes on seniors, working women and people earning as little as $17,000 a year," Mr. Allen said. "Those are the folks you're talking about that are getting Social Security, and the last thing they need is more taxes imposed on them by the governor."
Mr. Kaine countered that as governor he got rid of the estate tax and took more than 100,000 low-income Virginians off of income tax rolls.
"When George was in the United States Senate, he voted to privatize Social Security, and that would have been a huge catastrophe," Mr. Kaine said. "I will fight efforts to privatize Social Security to my last breath."
The looming $500 billion in defense cuts that resulted after Congress reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling last summer has fast emerged as a central campaign theme for Mr. Allen, who consistently points to Mr. Kaine's support for the deal.
But the so-called sequestration cuts were never intended to take effect: As part of the deal, about $1 trillion of additional cuts over the next decade, to be divided equally between defense and domestic spending, would kick in next year if a congressional supercommittee failed to reach a deal, as an impetus for the group to act. But there was no deal, and, absent further congressional action, they will start to take effect next year. Both Mr. Allen and Mr. Kaine say they want to reverse the cuts.
"The way you pay for it, Tim, is with a vibrant economy, where people are working and businesses are prospering — not higher taxes," said Mr. Allen, who cited the repeal of Obamacare, elimination of inefficiencies and redundancies in the government, and using the country's energy resources to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs created and more than $1 trillion in government revenue.
"The question was about sequester, and I did not hear any specifics from George other than we should repeal the Affordable Care Act, which the [Congressional Budget Office said] will increase the deficit, not reduce the deficit, and it would put us right back into the mix of a partisan battle we've been having for the last three years," Mr. Kaine said.
Mr. Kaine reiterated his plan of allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for incomes of more than $500,000, taking away subsidies for the country's largest oil companies, and allowing the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over prescription-drug prices for a seniors' entitlement program.
Both candidates touted bipartisan accomplishments during the debate — but in their closing statements, accused the other of being too partisan to serve in Washington.
"If Tim's in, he'll be right in there for the same folks he's been campaigning for all these years when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ignoring the needs, the dire needs, of people in Virginia," Mr. Allen said, saying that he wanted to see change in Washington and "positive, constructive ideas." "Anybody who pays taxes should be on our side, unless you want to pay higher taxes."
Mr. Kaine described Congress as an "ankle weight" on the economy — and that electing Mr. Allen would only make it worse.
"When he was governor, he famously said, his job was to enjoy knocking Democrats' soft teeth down their whiny throats," he said. "We need folks who know how to compromise and work together."
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