By Wesley P. Hester, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
Dec. 12–Wednesday’s bruising debate between former Govs. George Allen and Timothy M. Kaine offered an early glimpse into the tone and strategies behind what could be one of the most competitive and closely watched contests in the nation.
Regardless of the nominees — and though they are the front-runners by wide margins, Allen and Kaine face challengers — the race will help determine control of the U.S. Senate. Virginia’s place as a crucial swing state in the presidential election will add drama to the mix and could ultimately decide the outcome.
But Allen and Kaine — locked in a dead heat and seemingly unconcerned with their challengers — are battling for the possible eventuality of a presidential squeaker, clawing for any and every crossover vote or independent that could sway the election.
“It’s amusing for everybody but the candidates and their staffs, and they have to do what they’re doing, but most of it won’t matter a whit,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.
“In all probability, if the presidential result is at least 51-49 or greater, then the winner of the presidential contest will probably bring the party nominee in on his coattails.”
Political commentator Robert Holsworth, who attended the debate, said the respective strategies on display Wednesday showed both candidates fighting to keep hold of their bases while appealing to those on the fence.
Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, cast himself as a moderate reformer who would reach across the aisle to “fix Washington” rather than fight it. He pounced on Allen’s record as a U.S. senator, accusing him of supporting unpaid measures that have driven up the deficit and repeatedly referred to Allen’s campaign as a bid for “re-election.”
Allen, who is seeking to reclaim the U.S. Senate seat he lost to Jim Webb in 2006, continued his full-scale assault on the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration, hoping to damage Kaine though his association as Obama’s hand-picked DNC chairman who fought for those policies, calling it “the most partisan job in the country.”
“The purpose of all of that in the Allen campaign’s mind is to try and ensure that there isn’t any crossover vote from the Republican (presidential) nominee to Tim Kaine,” said Holsworth. “Allen thinks Obama is unpopular in Virginia, and he essentially wants to ensure that Kaine’s vote is the Obama vote and the Obama vote only.”
Holsworth said that while Allen’s tone was consistent with his message to date on the campaign trail, he was surprised by Kaine’s.
“His argument right now is not so different than the tea party’s — he’s basically saying that Allen’s record as a senator, and even … as governor, is one of a big spender,” he said.
While doing that, Kaine was forced to fend off attacks from Allen not only on his years as DNC chairman, but also on his proposed tax increases as governor. Kaine did not run from the president or from his own tax proposals, defending both.
Stylistically, the debate was a reversal of the candidates’ campaign demeanor to date, with Kaine the clear aggressor for most of the 11/2-hour event and Allen, who offers up bombastic anti-Washington rhetoric on the campaign trail, relatively sedate.
“Kaine was the litigator,” Holsworth said. “Allen was a little more tempered.”
Most striking, he added, was Kaine’s “clear message that he is going to run a campaign not only on issues, but in part on Allen’s style and personality.”
For evidence, he cited Kaine’s response when asked about Allen’s infamous “macaca moment” from 2006, in which Allen referred to a staffer for Democrat Jim Webb by what some consider a racial slur and added, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
“It wasn’t a unique incident,” Kaine said of the macaca moment, listing a litany of aggressive Allen quotes from over the years.
“I don’t know that there’s anyone in this room who thinks that the way to fix the dysfunction in Congress is to put more people in who want to do name-calling, who want to divide people against one another.”
“They’re basically attempting to describe Allen as ‘Baby Newt,’â??” Holsworth said, borrowing a phrase that Allen himself coined 16 years ago, likening himself to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the current GOP presidential front-runner.
But of the two, Holsworth said, Kaine faces the uphill battle, which is reflected in his strategy.
“The dilemma that the Democrats and Tim Kaine have is still the economic record of the Obama administration, which is not something that’s easy to run on,” he said. “So what they have to do is go back and say, ‘Well, this is caused by George Allen and his ilk.’â??”
And he added: “There is a lot of anti-Washington sentiment in Virginia and the country, and Allen is pretty skillful in appealing to that.”
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