RICHMOND -- Two political heavyweights fighting for Virginia's open U.S. Senate seat came out swinging Monday in their only debate in front of a statewide television audience.
Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, both former governors, presented two vastly different visions on health care, taxes, abortion and a slew of other issues in a 60-minute sparring match that marked their harshest encounter in what has otherwise been a rather wonkish race.
From their opening statements, Kaine portrayed his opponent as a Republican who would add to the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. Allen charged that Kaine was an absentee governor who spent his final year in office serving as President Obama's chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"How does a governor decide to take on a second job that sends him all over the country giving partisan speeches" during a recession? Allen asked.
Kaine noted that Allen, as a U.S. senator, ran the Senate Republicans' campaign arm.
The spirited exchange reflected the high stakes of a race that has become one of the most closely watched Senate contests in the country, a race that has attracted millions of dollars' worth of negative advertising from outside groups.
Kaine, who has pulled ahead in recent polls following months of deadlock, clearly felt momentum coming off a jobs report Friday that showed the nation's unemployment rate had fallen to the lowest point in four years. While Allen continued to blast the economic recovery, Kaine found an opportunity to capitalize on it.
"I really believe that there are some signs that economy is starting to move forward," Kaine said. "But I think Congress is the ankle weight."
With AARP as a debate host, Kaine and Allen were grilled on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Allen called for an increase in the retirement age to ensure the solvency of both programs. Kaine said savings could be culled from both programs and that the payroll tax could be raised beyond its current cap of $110,0000.
Allen hammered Kaine for initially supporting a deal to raise the nation's borrowing limit that now threatens to impose $500 billion in defense cuts that could devastate Virginia's economy.
Kaine said the cuts could be avoided if Congress ended subsidies to the oil industry and raised taxes on higher earners.
"I did not hear any specifics from George on how to deal with it other than repeal the Affordable Care Act," Kaine said.
It wasn't until one of the final questions, an upcoming Supreme Court case on affirmative action, that the two appeared to find common ground.
"I'm in favor of affirmative recruitment," Allen said, agreeing with Kaine. "It makes good sense."
Monday's meeting, coming just a month before Election Day, was the second of three televised debates.