Virginia Senate Candidates Square Off In Debate

In the closely watched Senate race in Virginia, Democrat and former Governor Tim Kaine holds an edge over Republican and former Governor George Allen. Kaine is a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Allen is a former senator who wants his seat back.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. There was a time when Republicans seemed very likely to take control of the Senate this fall. They still have a good chance of that, though political oddsmakers now see the contest as close. It will be decided by races like the one in Virginia, where two former governors are running - and debated last night. Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine are among the biggest political names in their state. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on their contest.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Virginia is a crossroads of demographic and interest groups. Putting together a winning coalition in a statewide race, means finding support among suburbanites, immigrants, military families, peanut farmers and coal miners.

On this autumn day, Tim Kaine is in the wealthy Washington suburb of Fairfax County, for what's billed as a women's town hall meeting.

TIM KAINE: What a great gathering. I'm so excited to have a chance to dialogue in this setting today...

NAYLOR: Women are an important demographic group, for Kaine. Recent polls have him opening up a modest lead over Allen; driven, in part, by a large advantage among women. Kaine got a ready-made issue when the Virginia General Assembly voted to require that women seeking abortions receive an invasive ultrasound procedure, even though the GOP governor watered it down.

KAINE: It's wrong on the issues for government to believe - for legislators to believe they can make women's moral and health-care decisions. Women are completely capable of making their own moral and health decisions about...

(APPLAUSE)

NAYLOR: Cherie LeJune, from Vienna, whose card says she's a digital life influencer, is among those in the town hall audience supporting Kaine.

CHERIE LEJUNE: He's got the right kind of listening skills. And if you're in office and you have a problem with Washington, you'd better have a peacemaker who can bridge that gap. George Allen is not a peacemaker. He is going to do the warrior stance; and that's not a win, right now, for what we need.

NAYLOR: In an interview, Kaine says Allen is out of touch with women voters.

KAINE: He advocates public policies that, I think, women realize are very contrary to their economic and social well-being.

NAYLOR: For his part, Allen says women have been hurt especially hard by the lagging economy. He says the fight over transvaginal ultrasounds, in Virginia, is not one he'll carry to the U.S. Senate.

GEORGE ALLEN: Democrats like to bring up - or Tim likes to bring this issue up - because it's a distraction away from the poor economy; these devastating cuts we're going to see to our military, and jobs, in Virginia. So they want to talk about anything other than what's on most people's minds.

NAYLOR: In Virginia Beach, Allen is doing some listening himself, to a group of veterans. Virginia stands to lose an estimated 130,000 jobs from the military and defense-related industries, unless Congress can come up with alternatives to the sequestration cuts coming up in January. Both candidates have criticized the cuts. Kaine has proposed raising taxes on upper-income Americans as a way to avoid them. Allen disagrees.

ALLEN: I think it's just so wrong to be using the men and women of our armed services as a political bargaining chip; to raise taxes on job-creating, small-business owners. What we need is leadership, leadership that sets priorities.

NAYLOR: Allen says he would find the money by increasing domestic energy production, including drilling off Virginia's coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

NAYLOR: Ray Naff, a retiree from Virginia Beach, says he's supporting Allen.

RAY NAFF: Right now, we're losing our prestige all over the world. And we're - what are we doing about it? We're decreasing our strength - the strength of our military, and so forth. And this is a very bad sign.

NAYLOR: Given what's at stake - the race is one that could determine who controls the Senate - it's not surprising that Virginia's TV viewers have been inundated with ads. Outside groups have spent some $16 million on the race, and the candidates themselves have raised a total of $25 million. Still, University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth says the Senate candidates are struggling to get attention. The reason?

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: This Senate race has been overshadowed by the presidential race. It's - hardly a week goes by, here in Virginia, where there isn't somebody on the presidential ticket, or a top surrogate, within the state. And so it becomes a very difficult environment, I think, for both of these Senate candidates to get all that much traction in the discourse.

NAYLOR: Which is why, though they've been reaching out to women, veterans, and everyone else in the state, it may be the presidential race that determines who wins Virginia's Senate seat next month.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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