In their first joint appearance since each won their parties’ respective nominations, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds and Republican nominee Bob McDonnell debated for 70 minutes last Saturday at the 119th annual summer meeting of the Virginia Bar Association in a ballroom at the historic Homestead resort in Bath County in Western Virginia.
Both men appeared poised and prepared for the issues brought up in the questions. Most observers questioned afterwards felt that the debate could be scored as a tie as neither man made a misstatement or glaring error in their comments. One observer described the debate as “punch and counterpunch.”
Senator Deeds, seen to stammer on occasion during his successful Democratic primary campaign, had a smooth and confident delivery and seemed calm and deliberate in his answers to debate questions. Former Attorney General McDonnell, generally more confident in his manner and aggressive in his delivery, was put on the defensive at times by Deeds and his statements occasionally seemed disjointed.
McDonnell highlighted his experience in the military, business world, and state government, and used the debate to paint Deeds as being in league with anti-business policies of the Democratic Congress. He accused Deeds of not having a specific plan to fix transportation, but wanting to increase state taxes to pay for transportation.
Deeds portrayed himself as a moderate who can work with legislators of both parties to solve problems, while accusing McDonnell of supporting George W. Bush’s economic policies, wanting to cut school funding, promoting anti-abortion policies, and not supporting rural Virginia. He invoked Mark Warner’s name on several occasions.
The economy and who would be better at job creation was a central argument for both candidates, and each accused the other of being extreme in their economic views. McDonnell argued that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that Deeds would increase taxes and hurt business, while Deeds said that McDonnell opposed the moderate, bipartisan policies of Governor Mark Warner that produced a strong Virginia economy.
McDonnell made the first opening statement of the debate and said that he had “the record, vision, and leadership” to be governor. He stated that jobs and the economy would be his priorities. McDonnell then tied Deeds to national legislation, which he criticized.
He said that the cap and trade pollution legislation in Congress would hurt Westvaco, a major employer in Western Virginia. McDonnell added that costs at Virginia public colleges have doubled in the past 10 years and that needed to stop, and that 92 out of 105 bills that he supported as Attorney General have passed the General Assembly.
Deeds followed with his opening statement in which he said that he stood with then-Governor Mark Warner five years before in the middle of a budget crisis in supporting tax reform legislation as he reached out to moderate Republicans.
He said that McDonnell, then in the House of Delegates, not only opposed that bill, but has stated his support of President Bush’s economic policies. Deeds stated that, as Governor, he would keep taxes low, control spending, make a commitment to support higher education, and pursue modern technology, such as stem cell research.
The gubernatorial candidates were then given two minutes to answer three segments of two questions to each; first from the moderator, then asked of each other, and finally those submitted in advance from the audience. They alternated who was first to answer each question and that person then had a one minute rebuttal at the end.
In a question about education funding and charter schools, McDonnell invoked President Obama and his support for charter schools. When asked about their economic development plans, Deeds accused McDonnell of proposing a plan that would take $5.4 billion out of education funding for transportation over 10 years. McDonnell said that he would collect royalties from off-shore drilling.
Asked about social issues, Deeds said that he wanted to promote opportunities for everyone and not divide. “I trust the women of Virginia on abortion,” he said, “while my opponent opposes abortion.” “I have been pro-life,” McDonnell answered, “but I have tried to bring people together.” He added that he wanted to promote conventional marriage.
When the time then came for each candidate to ask the other questions, McDonnell criticized as hurting Virginia businesses the congressional plans for a card check system for union organizing and the cap and trade pollution proposal. “I wonder whether you’re running for Congress or governor,” Deeds replied.
In response to several questions, McDonnell stated that Deeds has supported numerous tax and fee increases. Deeds responded that McDonnell was practicing the “politics of ‘gotcha’.” On several occasions, Deeds stated that McDonnell’s transportation plan hurts school funding. “I will not fund transportation on the back of education,” Deeds stated. “I have issued a detailed, comprehensive plan,” McDonnell said in rebuttal, “and you have not.”
Deeds asked McDonnell why George W. Bush and his economic policies were his model of governance. McDonnell replied that Bush cut taxes and that stimulated business activity. He then attacked what the Democratic Congress has done. “This election is about Virginia,” Deeds stated. “What national policy has helped Virginia in the last eight years?”
In an audience question, the candidates were asked if they supported rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender Virginians to marry. “That is unconstitutional now in Virginia,” Deeds responded. He stated that he has always felt that marriage was between a man and a woman, but that he supported laws to prevent discrimination against gays. McDonnell replied that he had not discriminated against gays in his hiring practices while attorney general. He said that he supported the Virginia constitutional amendment.
Another audience question concerned what gun laws are needed in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy. “I support the second amendment and have been supported by the NRA,” said Deeds. But, he added that after grieving families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims came to see him about the gun show loophole that allows those who purchase from private sellers not to have to undergo an instant background check, he worked in a Senate committee to craft a compromise to close it.
McDonnell answered by describing how he toured the shooting site at Virginia Tech after the tragedy in April 2007. He said that he worked with Governor Kaine on an executive order to clarify the reporting requirements of judicial decisions relating to mental incompetence. But, McDonnell added that he did not support the legislation closing the gun show loophole and he supports the Second Amendment.
Following closing statements, both candidates made their way to the lobby where they separately took questions from the media. “Warner and Kaine both promised to fix transportation and they did not, so what do you have to offer that they do not?” Deeds was asked. “I have served in the General Assembly,” he replied, “and both Democratic and Republican legislators are friends.”
Deeds said that he knew in his mind what is needed for transportation and that he would work with the General Assembly on it. “I have a record of getting things done and working in a bipartisan manner,” he stated.
McDonnell was questioned about his views on the gun show loophole. He reiterated that he supported the second amendment and that he worked with Governor Kaine on closing the loophole relating to the reporting requirements of judicial decisions dealing with mental incompetence. “That is the only loophole I am interested in,” he said.
Notes from the Debate
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The weather for the debate in Hot Springs was 88 degrees F, which is the average for that date, and mostly sunny, with beautiful blue skies and fluffy, white clouds…The McDonnell campaign placed numerous, large, 4-foot by 6-foot campaign signs along the winding roads leading to the Homestead and, although some Democratic campaign volunteers could be seen installing yard signs adjacent to the McDonnell signs, the Deeds campaign did not answer in kind While these gubernatorial debates are usually held on neutral ground, the Senate district of Creigh Deeds includes the Homestead and he lives in Millboro Springs about 22 miles from there…Bob and Maureen McDonnell celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary three days before the debate, but held off until the night before the debate to have a romantic anniversary dinner at the Homestead…During the debate, Senator Deeds mentioned that his high school prom was held in a ballroom at the Homestead…For the debate, Bob McDonnell wore a dark grey pin-stripped suit with a light blue tie and Creigh Deeds wore a dark grey suit with a dark blue and white striped tie…Both men looked relaxed, trim, and appeared to be slimmer, perhaps to get down to their “fighting weight”…A spokesperson for the Virginia Bar Association said that requests for media credentials were greater for this gubernatorial debate than previous ones, with about 50 members of the print, radio, television, and blogging media present…Two tables on each side of the stage with seating for 12 at each table were reserved for media members using PCs…The stage looked like it was reserved for a memorial service as there were several large, potted peace lilies on each side and a white floral spray in the middle…In the ballroom where the debate was held, there was a center aisle with rows of seats on either side and each candidate was allowed to reserve up to 25 seats in the first few rows on each side for campaign staff and family members…Family members of the officials presiding over the debate were also present, including Garrett Epps, brother of Virginia Bar Association president John Epps, who, as a reporter for the Richmond Mercury in 1977, wrote an award-winning fictionalized account of the 1973 gubernatorial race between Henry Howell and Mills Godwin, entitled The Shad Treatment…Chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party and former member of the House of Delegates, Dick Cranwell, was present for the debate…Other former lawyer-legislators present included former Democratic Delegate and Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement and former Alexandria Republican Senator Bob Calhoun…The Virginia Bar Association has traditionally alternated their summer meetings between the Homestead and the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, but recently signed a long term agreement to meet annually at the Homestead…That meant that this was the first gubernatorial debate at the Homestead because previous such events have occurred at the Greenbrier…The moderator of the debate, Washington and Lee University Law School Dean Rodney Smolla, is famous for successfully representing three families of murder victims that sued the publisher of the book, “Hit Man,” which was described as a murder instruction manual, and he wrote a book, “Deliberate Intent,” about the case which was turned into a Fox television movie.