Friday, September 18, 2009

Deeds, McDonnell square off in debate

Transportation funding and hot-button political issues loomed large at the Northern Virginia scuffle.

Former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (left) and state Sen. Creigh Deeds attend a debate Thursday in McLean. The two gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to participate in two televised debates next month.

Associated Press

Former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (left) and state Sen. Creigh Deeds attend a debate Thursday in McLean. The two gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to participate in two televised debates next month.

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McLEAN -- Virginia's candidates for governor dueled over taxes and transportation and faced questions about President Obama and national issues Thursday in a debate in front of Northern Virginia business leaders.

Democrat Creigh Deeds tried to distance himself from two initiatives emerging in Congress, saying he opposes Democratic proposals aimed at curbing greenhouse emissions and making it easier for unions to organize. Republican Bob McDonnell has tried to link Deeds to both initiatives and argued that they would hurt Virginia businesses and jeopardize jobs.

Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, also took on a sensitive question about whether racism is a factor fueling some of the opposition to Obama's agenda.

"I'd like to think that in this country we are beyond some things, but clearly there was a hint of racism in some of the opposition to President Obama," Deeds said in response to the question posed by moderator David Gregory of NBC News.

Deeds went on to criticize U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who shouted "You lie!" during Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress last week. Deeds said he was "very disturbed" by Wilson's outburst and that it would not have happened in front of a previous president.

"I hope we are broad enough as a people to be able to discuss our differences civilly," Deeds said.

McDonnell, the former attorney general, said after the debate that he did not consider race a factor in the opposition to Obama.

"I don't see it and I don't feel it," McDonnell said. "I think these are ideas that are fought over public policy."

The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate, which was staged at an office complex just off the Capital Beltway. In that setting, it was not surprising that transportation funding and hot-button Washington political issues loomed large in the hour-long scrum.

The Virginia race is being viewed as an early test of public support for Obama, who carried the state in last year's presidential election. When asked during the debate if he considered himself an "Obama Democrat," Deeds said, "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat." But Deeds said he welcomed support from the president, who campaigned with him last month.

Deeds said he would not increase taxes for general fund programs such as education, health care and public safety, despite budget shortfalls that have forced Gov. Tim Kaine and state lawmakers to slash billions in funding for state programs. But Deeds would not make the same pledge when it came to transportation, saying the state must come up with more than $1 billion annually to meet long-neglected needs.

"I'm the only candidate on this dais who will raise money for transportation," Deeds said.

McDonnell insisted he would not increase taxes and touted a multifaceted transportation plan that relies partly on revenue that typically goes toward other state services, including public schools. Among other things, McDonnell has vowed to privatize the state's liquor stores to generate new transportation funds.

"I believe you don't tax your way to prosperity," McDonnell said.

At one point, McDonnell held up a blank sheet of paper and said: "Here's my opponent's plan. Not a thing on it."

Deeds countered that McDonnell's transportation plan is based on a hodgepodge of ideas that have been rejected by the General Assembly. He also claimed that McDonnell's plan would drain money from schools, mental health and other essential services, a charge McDonnell denied.

Deeds faced a barrage of questions after the debate from reporters asking him to clarify his position on taxes and transportation funding. He grew testy at one point, telling a reporter, "I think I've made myself clear, young lady."

"We have to come up with a billion a year in new money," Deeds said. "To arrive at that, everything is on the table with one exception: taking money out of the general fund, taking money out of education."

McDonnell sought to tie Deeds to two measures emerging in Congress -- a proposed "cap-and-trade" bill designed to curb pollution emissions, and another bill that would make it easier for workers to organize unions.

Deeds said he opposes the cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the U.S. House and would not support a measure that increases utility costs. He criticized McDonnell for television ads his campaign is running in Southwest Virginia, saying, "He's spending hundreds of thousands of dollars downstate lying to people about my record right now."

McDonnell launched the ads to counter Deeds ads that link the former attorney general to rate increases imposed by Appalachian Power Co.

Gregory opened the debate by asking McDonnell about a 20-year-old thesis paper the candidate wrote as a graduate and law student at Regent University. In the thesis, McDonnell described the trends of feminism and working women as "detrimental to the family."

McDonnell has repudiated some of the views expressed in the paper and insisted that his record as attorney general and his own family life demonstrate support for working women. Deeds argued the thesis is the foundation of McDonnell's political philosophy and returned to the issue multiple times Thursday, once drawing disapproving groans from some in the audience.

McDonnell, using a famed Ronald Reagan debate line, shot back: "Creigh, there you go again."

McDonnell said he was "pretty insulted" that the Democrat would question his support for working women. He pointed to the audience and acknowledged his daughter Jeanine, who served as an Army platoon leader in Iraq. McDonnell called his daughter "the ultimate working woman."

"I think I've got a good record on my support for men and women to be judged on the basis of their character, their merit, their results and their love for Virginia," McDonnell said.

The candidates will hold their next debate Oct. 12 in Richmond, the first of two televised debates scheduled next month.

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