Ripping Obama: Gilmore's Last Hope Against Warner?
If you could get out of the way of all the mud being slung at yesterday's U.S. Senate debate in Virginia, you'd have seen a remarkable and almost discomfiting degree of agreement between longtime adversaries Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner.
Democrat and Republican alike agree that the national economy is in big trouble and that the answer is more oversight, more regulation. (Yes, Republican Gilmore said that too.) Both candidates bashed Wall Street executives for unbridled greed. Gilmore, who made a career of criticizing government regulation, emphasized the need for "proper regulations," "ethical lending practices," and "more oversight."
Even when the debate steered away from the economy, the two sometimes struggled to find differences. Both emphasized their support of gun rights and both said they would have voted to strip the District of Columbia of its ability to write its own gun laws in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling tossing out Washington's handgun ban (that would put Warner on the opposite side of all of his fellow Democrats now serving in the House from northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.)
Gilmore and Warner competed to see who could call for offshore oil drilling most convincingly.
Some of this is classic Warnerism: He is one of the nation's most effective Democrats in the art of coopting traditional Republican applause lines and neutralizing wedge issues.
But no amount of what Warner calls "radical centrism" could hide the fact that the two former governors vying to succeed Sen. John Warner just don't like each other. In their debate before the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, Mark Warner was more pleasant toward his rival and Gilmore, the underdog, was far more eager to go on the offensive, but stylistic differences aside, you could just feel the hatred permeating the room from both sides.
The two ex-governors spent an inordinate portion of the debate trashing each other's performance in Richmond, squabbling over past budget battles in arguments that made sense only to the most dedicated observers of Virginia government.
Trailing badly in both the polls and the campaign coffers, Gilmore had two lines that he repeated in response to almost any question posed to him: 1) Every time Warner said anything about working across party lines, Gilmore shot back with "Bipartisanship is no substitute for honesty," and reminded Virginians that Warner raised taxes despite having originally said he wouldn't. And 2) no matter what he was asked, Gilmore found a way to squeeze in a mention of Barack Obama, apparently on the theory that if he can't beat the mega-popular Warner, maybe he can beat the Democratic presidential candidate.
On the Wall Street issue, on energy, on campaign strategy--whatever the question, Gilmore found a way to issue a warning that "Barack Obama wants to raise your taxes, Mark Warner wants to raise your taxes."
Finally, Warner felt compelled to respond, noting that he is "proud to be supporting Barack Obama, but...I'm going to be on Virginia's team, I'm going to be on America's team." That gave Gilmore entree to bash bipartisanship again, and the cycle repeated.
The latest poll numbers show a very tight presidential race in Virginia, hardly enough to justify Gilmore staking his own candidacy on linking Warner to an unpopular Democrat at the top of the ticket. All indications are that Warner will outpoll Obama, but that doesn't necessarily mean that an attack on Obama diminishes Warner's support.
Some readers have been writing in to ask whether Gilmore's insistent linking of Obama and Warner is meant to tap into racial animosity toward Obama. Certainly Gilmore said nothing that would support that notion. But the very fact that both Republicans and Democrats are writing in to say that that was the message they took from Gilmore's debate tactic suggests that someone has race on the brain--was it the candidate or the voters?
In the end, this was a fairly useless debate. Neither candidate landed any hard punches. I'd give the edge to Warner, who was more detailed and forthcoming on the economic crisis and who seemed generally more confident and senatorial. Gilmore has an air of desperation about him these days, and he was way too defensive and brittle about his own record as governor.
Best part of the debate: No one steered the conversation toward the silly, emotional and generally irrelevant social issues that Virginia Republicans have focused on so dependably in recent campaigns. Gilmore deserves considerable credit for that, even if this was a northern Virginia audience that would likely only be turned off by such topics.
There's one more debate, Oct. 3 in Roanoke. Not yet clear if it will be televised in the Washington area.
By Marc Fisher |
September 19, 2008; 8:12 AM ET
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