HOT SPRINGS, Va. —Both U.S. Senate candidates in Virginia offered glimpses of their lines of attack in the race’s first general election debate, with Democrat Tim Kaine repeatedly labeling Republican opponent George Allen a big spender and overt partisan, and Mr. Allen painting Mr. Kaine as a serial tax-hiker and cheerleader of President Obama’s agenda, notably his high-profile federal health care law.
The weekend faceoff, held at the tony Homestead resort near the West Virginia border, was the two former governors’ first head-to-head match-up since Mr. Allen won last month’s Republican primary.
Both men began by acknowledging the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman killed 12 people and injured scores of others at a premiere of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
After that, the gloves came off in a debate hosted by the nonpartisan Virginia Bar Association. The two are battling in one of the nation’s tightest and most closely watched Senate battles, to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who ousted Mr. Allen from the Senate in 2006.
Mr. Allen tried to pin $500 million in looming defense cuts on Mr. Kaine, who supported $1 trillion in cuts approved by Congress last year, with more to kick in automatically — half from defense programs — if Congress fails to act before Jan. 1. Virginia, home to many military contractors and bases, could lose more than 200,000 jobs if the impasse is not broken and the automatic cuts take effect.
“I could never envision myself voting for something that could be so potentially harmful to Virginians,” Mr. Allen said. “We need to be putting Virginians first, as far as I’m concerned, and national defense should never be used as a bargaining tool to raise taxes.”
Mr. Kaine, though, said Republicans were at fault for using the threat not to raise the federal government’s debt limit last year as leverage to push for more spending cuts.
Similar to Republican presidential primary contenders, Mr. Allen said he would not accept a deficit-reduction deal even if it included $10 in spending cuts for every one dollar of revenue increases.
“Raising taxes does not make a state or a country more competitive for jobs,” he said.
Mr. Kaine, though, said he’d like to see $2 to $3 of cuts for every dollar of tax increases. He favors letting the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire on the first $500,000 of income for individuals and families, a break from President Obama’s $250,000 threshold for households.
In the debate moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley, the candidates also were given opportunities to ask each other questions. Mr. Kaine asked Mr. Allen why he didn’t support finding a way to pay for President Bush’s expansion of the portion of Medicare that subsidizes prescription-drug purchases for the elderly when he voted for it in the U.S. Senate.
“In those days, it was right after 9/11, no one’s going to be rising taxes [on] a weak economy,” said Mr. Allen, countering that it was characteristic of Mr. Kaine to advocate for tax hikes. The Democrat did try to raise taxes when he was governor to raise money for transportation, but he also cut $5 billion out of the Virginia budget as the deep recession took hold.
He put the onus right back on Mr. Allen.
“George is running for re-election to the United States Senate,” he said. “And he’s running as ‘I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m going to make cuts.’ But George Allen has never made cuts.”
He pointed to Mr. Allen’s votes for the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prescription-drug program, noting out that the federal debt increased by $16,000 every second that Mr. Allen was in the Senate.
“You talk like a fiscal conservative, but you’ve never governed like one,” he said. “One of the reason the deficit is high today is you planted time bombs in the budget.”
Mr. Allen disagreed, pointing out that he advocated for a balanced-budget amendment and line-item veto authority when he was in the Senate.
“When I left the Senate, we were on a trajectory toward a balanced budget,” he said, pointing out that the country is now in its fourth straight year of an annual federal budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion.
Mr. Kaine also tried to paint Mr. Allen as a name-calling partisan — someone who he said would add to the noxious atmosphere currently enveloping Washington.
“I don’t go about bashing Mitt Romney,” Mr. Kaine said. “I would never go around putting up a bulletin board that says “George Allen: Mitt Romney’s senator. Not Virginia’s.”