- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

HOT SPRINGS, Va. — The state’s top two candidates for the U.S. Senate finally told each other face to face what they have hammered at for months on the campaign trail.

Sen. George Allen said his record of working for Virginians confirms the leadership he brings to Congress, and Democratic nominee James H. Webb Jr. continued to criticized Mr. Allen for supporting what he considers President Bush’s failed policy decisions, during their first official debate leading to the fall election.

The candidates debated a number of key issues, including the Iraq War, stem-cell research funding, homosexual “marriage,” and immigration, but stayed close to the messages they have delivered since their campaigns began earlier this year.

Gail Parker, an independent candidate, was not invited to participate, but attended the event, hosted by the Virginia Bar Association at the Homestead, a luxury resort in the Allegheny Mountains near the West Virginia line.

Mr. Allen, 54, continued to attempt to make a point of Mr. Webb’s switching political parties.

“I know you’ve been a Republican, you’ve been a Democrat, you’ve been a Republican, you’ve been a Democrat,” he said. “Heck, I don’t know. Someday, we are going to be using the acronym R2-D2 for you.” R2-D2 was the name of a robot character in the “Star Wars” film series.

Mr. Webb, 60, said he left the Republican Party because of national-security issues and because “an extremist fringe took over the Republican Party on issues of foreign policy” after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He also tried to characterize Mr. Allen’s support of Mr. Bush by saying a friend once told him: “When two people agree with each other 97 percent of the time, one of them doesn’t need a job.”

Mr. Allen said he disagrees with the president’s immigration policy because it would “reward illegal behavior with amnesty and citizenship.”

His Capitol Hill experience was at times an asset and a liability.

For example, Mr. Allen had to tell Mr. Webb that Craney Island was a manmade peninsula in Portsmouth on which the Virginia Port Authority might add another terminal, which would create “tens of thousands of jobs for Virginians.”

“This is one of the reasons, I suppose, people make decisions on who they vote for,” Mr. Allen said, smiling.

Last week, the U.S. Senate authorized a $671.3 million expansion of the area. The project still must be approved by the House and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mr. Webb said Mr. Allen has accepted $31,000 in congressional raises since taking office, while voting four times against increasing the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage, which has been the same since 1997.

Mr. Allen said he supports an increase if combined with tax breaks for small business. Mr. Webb wants to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour.

Mr. Allen said he agrees with Mr. Webb’s proposal to provide veterans of the war on terrorism with the same GI Bill benefits given to those who are veterans of World War II — including full tuition, a monthly living stipend and paying for textbooks.

On homosexual “marriage,” Mr. Webb said the marriage state constitutional amendment, which is on the November ballot, could cause problems for heterosexual couples. Mr. Allen supports a constitutional amendment.

Mr. Webb said he supported the plan the Republican-controlled Congress passed and Mr. Bush vetoed that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Mr. Allen, who voted against the bill, said he supports stem-cell research as long as it does not include destroying human embryos.

The debate was civil, with the candidates exchanging their appreciation for each other.

“I like George Allen. He’s somebody I wouldn’t mind going out and having a beer with,” Mr. Webb said.

Mr. Allen elicited a laugh from Mr. Webb when he said: “I wish Jim was still endorsing me. … I’d buy you a beer. It would be a Virginia beer — it’d be Coors or a Budweiser.”

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