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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kaine and Allen Face Off in Debate


A sunny but policy-vague George Allen faced off with a wonkish Tim Kaine on Thursday in a Virginia Senate debate that highlighted the perils of policy specifics when Mr. Kaine, the Democratic candidate, suggested he would entertain a minimum federal tax for all households.

The race for the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat, is among the closest in the country. It has not, however, been among the most heated. Two former governors, Mr. Allen, a Republican, and Mr. Kaine, have largely waged the careful campaigns of seasoned candidates.

But Mr. Kaine's off-the-cuff suggestion about a minimum tax could heat things up, especially with fresh polling suggesting he may be opening a lead.

The moderator, David Gregory of NBC, pressed both candidates to comment on Mitt Romney's secretly taped comments disparaging the 47 percent of households that pay no federal income taxes as dependent on the government. While Mr. Allen flicked the question away, Mr. Kaine said, “I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone, but I do insist, many of the 47 percent that Governor Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does.”

That comment sounded more like conservative Republican sentiments than the moderate Democrat Mr. Kaine is presenting himself as, but it may well find its way into attack ads as the race heads into the homestretch.

Brandi Hoffine, a spokeswoman for the Kaine campaign, said Mr. Kaine was only showing that he would like to pursue a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code in the Senate and is keeping an open mind to any i deas that may come his way.

“You can't just take things off the table. You have to be open to other perspectives and other views,” Ms. Hoffine said

In general, the debate featured two men tackling policy issues with very different approaches. Both candidates railed against automatic defense cuts scheduled to begin in January unless Congress intervenes. But Mr. Kaine laid out a list of alternatives: Allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire on households earning at least $500,000, repeal tax breaks for oil and gas companies, and allow the federal government to bargain for lower prescription drug prices for Medicare. With those changes, Congress would have only $23 billion more cuts to shut off the so-called “sequester” - or automatic cuts, he said.

Mr. Allen, who has made those defense cuts the centerpiece of his campaign of late, offered only vague solutions. He said repealing President Obama's health care law would help, although the Congressional Budget O ffice says repeal would raise the deficit over 10 years, not lower it. And he proposed a flat tax that households could voluntarily choose over the existing tax code. Tax analysts say that too would likely increase the deficit by giving taxpayers the ability to choose whichever tax code saved them money.

What he said repeatedly was that he would not entertain any tax increases to solve nation's budget morass or keep the government from heading off a “fiscal cliff” in January, when all Bush-era tax cuts expire and across-the-board spending cuts go into force. He accused Democrats of using the pending defense cuts to force Republicans to bargain over taxes.

“The men and women in our armed forces should never be used as bargaining chips to raise taxes on job-creating small businesses,” he said.

Mr. Allen instead focused on an almost Reagan-like optimism. As he does on the campaign trail, he said he should have the backing of 99 percent of Virginians, a nyone who pays an electric bill, drives a car or has a job. And he concluded his return to the Senate, after a six-year absence, would be about “making sure America is ascending once again and is a land of opportunity once again.”