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Two former Virginia governors vying for a U.S. Senate Seat -- faced off today in the first debate of the race. Former U.S. Senator George Allen and Tim Kaine -- former Governor and head of the Democratic National Committee -- met in Richmond this afternoon. Neither is the official nominee of his party, but they were the only two candidates to meet the criteria set for the debate -- that they poll at 15 percent or better and raise at least one-fifth the funds raised by the front-runner. Another candidate, Julie Modica did not meet the criteria and lost a lawsuit seeking to take part.
The event was moderated by Bob Gibson -- executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. He spoke with WAMU's Rebecca Blatt about the highlights.
What were the biggest themes of the debate?
It was very early, and it allowed them both opportunities to draw some contrasts. Allen used the opportunity to attach Governor Kaine to the Obama administration on healthcare, spending and taxation. Governor Kaine used it to go after Allen's record in the Senate on spending.
"There were a number of sharp contrasts which are rarely made this far out in a campaign," says Gibson.
What did you make of the response to George Allen's question about the partisan nature of Kaine's experience with the DNC?
"He knew it was coming. He knew that George Allen at every opportunity would try to tie him to President Obama. Mr. Kaine responded by putting it in the best light he could, on service that, politically, might cost him something," says Gibson.
Kaine repeatedly tried to frame the race as a re-election bid for Allen. What do you make of that strategy?
"It sounds like a smart strategy for Mr. Kaine to go after Mr. Allen's six years in the U.S. Senate, where he voted time and again on spending increases and raising the debt ceiling. Those are issues that might drive a little bit of a wedge between Mr. Allen and the Tea Party.
Were there any surprises?
"I think the biggest surprise may have been the back and forth over when life begins, with George Allen saying that it should begin at conception, but his answer included that he did not think that would effect birth control pills. Governor Kaine insisted that it would. There was more of a sharp clash on that than I think anybody expected at this debate."
What do you see as the biggest questions in this race moving forward?
"I think the economy is, without a debt, going to be the biggest issue. There were sharp lines drawn between the two on deficit spending, on how much money goes into healthcare. It's going to be an interesting year, with sharp contrasts between whoever wins the Republican nomination -- most likely George Allen -- and whoever wins the Democratic nomination -- most likely Tim Kaine. I think they're going to have 11 months of discussion on the economy."