Sunday, July 26, 2009

HOT SPRINGS, Va. | In the first debate of Virginia’s highly-anticipated gubernatorial race, Democratic State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell sparred over how to jump-start the economy and tackle the state’s $100 billion backlog of highway construction projects.

Mr. McDonnell vowed not to raise taxes to take on the transportation quagmire, pointing to his newly released plan that would toll freeways at the North Carolina border and use existing sales taxes to alleviate road congestion in Northern Virginia. He accused Mr. Deeds of having no plan at all, just a set of ideas without a funding proposal.

The Democrat, who wouldn’t say whether he’d consider new taxes, countered that Mr. McDonnell’s plan was an implausible hodge-podge of components that would take a toll on the state’s education system to the tune of $5.4 million over 10 years. He said the former attorney general’s proposals have been kicked around the Capitol for years.

Both candidates tried to portray their opponent as unrepresentative of the state they’re seeking to govern, and Mr. Deeds sought to tie his opponent to what he called the failed economic policies of former President George W. Bush.

“This election presents a clear choice between who has a record and who has a plan to jump-start our economy and who will take us back to failed economic policies of the past,” he said.

While this was the first of four debates and six forums, the candidates have squared off before during the 2005 race for attorney general. Mr. McDonnell won by slightly more than 300 votes. The hour-long debate was hosted by the Virginia Bar Association and took place at the Homestead Resort - in Mr. Deeds’ home base of Bath County.

The Virginia race along with New Jersey’s gubernatorial election are being watched closely by both parties and politicos eager to gauge the long-term effect of President Obama on the electoral map. Mr. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the formerly rock-solid conservative state of Virginia in 44 years.

In a state where the Second Amendment is important, both candidates highlighted their previous stances on gun control issues. Mr. Deeds noted that he has been supported by the National Rifle Association. That was before he changed his stance in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech and supported closing the so-called gun-show “loophole.”

The NRA has yet to endorse a candidate.

During the debate, Mr. Deeds highlighted his work on bipartisan legislation to close the loophole. His opponent said that while he didn’t support the bill, he worked with Gov. Tim Kaine to tighten mental health restrictions for gun sales.

Mr. McDonnell took his opponent to task over his refusal to sign a letter or call the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators to oppose cap-and-trade legislation and the pro-labor “card check” legislation. The Employee Free Choice Act would establish a so-called “card-check” union organizing system, in which a majority of employees simply sign a card in favor of union representation.

He categorized both proposals as bad for business in Virginia. Mr. McDonnell recounted a recent visit to the largest employer in Mr. Deeds’ Senate district and said, “If you won’t take a stand for 1,500 jobs in your district, I don’t think the people of Virginia can be confident you can protect jobs statewide.”

Mr. McDonnell tried to characterize Mr. Deeds’ refusal to sign a letter as a refusal to defeat such legislation. He said it was a referendum on the senator’s ability to protect the state from federal legislation that may be detrimental to the state.

Defending himself, Mr. Deeds said that he was concerned about cap-and-trade energy legislation and regarding the “card check” legislation he was sure that whatever passed would contain provisions protecting the secret ballot that right-to-work groups consider essential to prevent scare tactics.

The candidates largely said they would sidestep social issues in favor of more important economic and transportation issues troubling the state. However, Mr. McDonnell did add that he would act “consistent with his record” and push to strengthen families.

Mr. Deeds did point out that there are stark differences between the two candidates on several issues.

“On the issue of abortion, I trust the women of Virginia. I believe this is a matter that ought to be decided by women with whomever else they want to talk to.”

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