- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SALEM, Va. | Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates aggressively clashed over transportation, the economy, health care and social issues Tuesday night in their fourth and final debate with two weeks remaining until Election Day.

Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds resumed a line of attack he began during a debate last week in Richmond, repeatedly accusing his Republican rival, Robert F. McDonnell, of undergoing an “election year conversion” after spending years in the General Assembly attempting to advance a socially conservative agenda.

“Virginia needs a governor in these trying times who will focus on the big issues,” Mr. Deeds said. “Bob McDonnell has spent his career as a legislator focusing on social issues.”

Mr. McDonnell similarly returned to a theme Republicans have used repeatedly in the campaign, charging that Mr. Deeds would need to raise billions of dollars in taxes to pay for his plans to upgrade transportation infrastructure, especially in Northern Virginia.

“He’s making promises he has no way to pay for,” Mr. McDonnell said.

The first half of the hourlong debate took the form of a conversation between moderators Jay Warren of WSLS-TV and Virginia Tech professor Bob Denton and the candidates. The format allowed the candidates to engage each other. Several times, one would interrupt the other to challenge characterizations of their plans and proposals.

Mr. Deeds, who has been behind in recent polls, was especially aggressive, but both men leveled stinging shots.

When Mr. Deeds was asked what taxes would be raised under his administration, Mr. McDonnell quickly said, “I can answer that.”

“No, you can’t answer that,” Mr. Deeds fired back. Mr. Deeds said he would consider increasing any tax that is related to transportation, and when pressed on whether that included taxes on alcohol or cigarettes, Mr. Deeds said, “Anything that has a nexus to transportation.”

During the second half of the debate, the candidates delivered their answers directly to the moderators.

Asked about health care reform and a public option that would establish a government-run health insurance program designed to compete with private insurers, Mr. McDonnell said, “Virginia should opt out of any public option passed.”

In response to the same question, Mr. Deeds said he thinks it’s important to reduce the cost of insurance and to cover more people but that the public option isn’t required in his view.

“I’m not afraid of going against my fellow Democrats when I think they’re wrong,” he said. “I dont think the public option is necessary in any plan, and I would certainly consider opting out if that was available to Virginia.”

The candidates continued their argument over Mr. Deeds’ stance on a federal cap-and-trade proposal that would require polluters to either reduce their emissions or offset their pollutants by buying permits to pollute.

Mr. McDonnell reiterated that he does not support the bill and cited an estimate that said it would add up to $1,700 annually to the electric bills of some Virginia families.

He said Mr. Deeds indicated his support for the bill in a questionnaire he filled out for the Sierra Club during the Democratic primary campaign, adding that the Democratic candidate served on Gov. Tim Kaine’s climate change commission, which looked favorably on cap and trade.

Mr. Deeds, who during the last debate accused Mr. McDonnell of “lying” about his record on cap and trade, said Tuesday night that Mr. McDonnell was “attacking me for a bill I don’t support.”

“I’ve stood to support our land and waters, but I don’t support cap and trade,” he said, adding that the Sierra Club endorsed him despite his opposition to the bill.

The biggest crowd reaction of the night came when Mr. McDonnell was asked about the federal stimulus and its lack of an effect on Virginia, as well as the state coming in last on spending stimulus money on transportation projects.

“I really think we could use a full-time governor,” Mr. McDonnell said, eliciting laughter from the audience in a reference to Mr. Kaine’s role as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. McDonnell also defended his voting record on abortion, saying bills he supported in the General Assembly were to ban partial-birth abortion and involve parents in abortion decisions for their children. He said he believes in protecting human life but as governor would adhere to federal and state laws that stipulate that abortion is legal.

Asked about the emphasis his campaign has placed on Mr. McDonnell’s 20-year-old graduate school thesis, which said homosexuality, working women and abortion were detrimental to American families, Mr. Deeds said the thesis shows that Mr. McDonnell is focused on a social agenda.

“The thesis is relevant because it puts in context Bob’s record,” he said.

Mr. Deeds said Mr. McDonnell had introduced 35 bills in the legislature placing curbs on legal abortions. Mr. Warren clarified that they were only eight bills introduced multiple times.

The debate, which took place before an audience of about 400 people at Roanoke College, was widely seen as crucial to Mr. Deeds’ chances of closing a persistent gap against Mr. McDonnell in the polls.

According to a poll released Tuesday by D.C.-based Clarus Research Group, Mr. McDonnell leads Mr. Deeds 49 percent to 41 percent. The poll of 605 likely voters was conducted Sunday and Monday and had a margin of error of four percentage points.

The race, one of only two gubernatorial elections this year, has drawn millions of dollars in campaign contributions and interest from across the country.

On Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton campaigned with Mr. Deeds in McLean.

Mr. Clinton told a rally of hundreds of Deeds supporters crowded into the Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign Headquarters in Northern Virginia that Mr. Deeds is the right choice for governor.

“I have reviewed this. There is no question Creigh Deeds has the best jobs plan, the best energy plan, has the best education plan - this is not a close question - has the best record on health care.”

Mr. Clinton made his first appearance on behalf of Mr. Deeds after visiting the state several times earlier this year to campaign for Mr. Deeds’ Democratic primary opponent, Terry McAuliffe.

“I tried to help Terry McAuliffe beat Creigh Deeds and we failed, and I respect people who win and win fair and square,” Mr. Clinton said, discussing the reasons why he is supporting Mr. Deeds. “I am a lifetime Democrat and I like this guy. I like Creigh Deeds I like the way he handled himself in the primary. I like the way he has handled himself in the general election. I believe he would be a good governor.”

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