WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) stood in front of the stage in the Colonial Hall ballroom Saturday and chatted amiably with a couple of reporters; his campaign manager, David Turner; and the occasional well-wisher who approached him for a handshake or a photo.
Warner seemed laid back and worry-free — just what you might expect from a man with a 20-point lead in the polls.
It was a marked change from the image Warner projected just a few minutes earlier, during his debate at the Greenbrier resort with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie. From the start of the 90-minute exchange — moderated by PBS NewsHour co-host Judy Woodruff and sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association — Warner went on the offensive, at times acting more like an incumbent running 20 points behind than one who most political analysts consider a good bet to win a second term.
“My opponent has spent his entire career as a partisan operative,” Warner, 59, said in his opening statement, referring to Gillespie’s lucrative career as a Republican lobbyist and aide to President George W. Bush. “He even called himself a ‘partisan warrior.’ [That’s] the last thing Washington needs more of.”
But Gillespie, who turns 53 on Aug. 1, gave as good as he got and, in fact, seemed at times more at ease and self-assured than the incumbent.
“Senator Warner said he would be an independent voice in Washington, but he has not been the senator he said he would be,” Gillespie said, claiming Warner has voted with President Barack Obama 97 percent of the time.
Warner fired back, though, saying Gillespie “needs to get his facts straight,” adding that “independent political observers have called that claim misleading, and not representative of my record.” Indeed, the 97-percent-vote statistic applies to only votes on which Obama took a position. All told, they account for less than a third of all roll calls recorded in the Senate since Warner joined the chamber in 2009.
“As a matter of fact, the National Journal ranks me in the sensible center,” Warner added in defending his tenure, one he says has been marked by efforts to find common ground with Republicans. “[That’s] one of the reasons, I think, why John Warner — Republican Senator John Warner — who held this seat for 30 years, has endorsed me.”
But Gillespie, well aware that Warner’s popularity is due largely to his image as a moderate, continued to hammer away at the incumbent’s centrist claims.
“He said he would be a fiscal moderate and then voted to raise our taxes by a trillion dollars,” Gillespie said. “It’s part of a pattern … [Warner’s] office sends out press releases that are very bipartisan, but his floor votes are very partisan.”
When it came time for the candidates to question one another, Warner zeroed in on Gillespie’s role as a lobbyist for Enron, a company that became synonymous with corporate greed after it buckled under the weight of an accounting scandal in 2001. Warner asked Gillespie why his firm took hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for its work for the company.
“Was it fair to take $700,000 when 20,000 people lost their jobs, and you lobbied against legislation that would have helped prevent [the company’s collapse]?” Warner asked.
“It was a yearlong contract,” Gillespie responded without answering the question. “But after [former Enron CEO] Ken Lay pleaded the fifth, we said this is not the company we thought it was and we dropped them.”
Gillespie asked Warner why he voted for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare — the issue that most analysts believe is Warner’s biggest Achilles’ heel as he vies for re-election.
The Republican challenger, who says Warner’s vote for Obamacare is just one of many examples of how the senator is “in lockstep with the president,” asked Warner if he would vote for the 2009 legislation again if it came up today.
Like Gillespie’s response to the Enron matter, Warner did not specifically answer the question.
“What I believe then is what I believe now,” he said. “The old system was broken.”
Warner said he has proposed a number of changes to the legislation to address the most vexing problems of the health care initiative.
“What I hear from Virginians is they’re tired of this issue being used as a political football,” he said. “They don’t want to go back to the days when preexisting conditions couldn’t get coverage, or women were charged differently than men, or seniors had to pay a higher price for purchasing prescription drugs.”
Warner acknowledged that the Obamacare rollout “was a disaster.” But, he said, “What I’ve laid out are actual, specific plans on how we can improve it.”
By contrast, he said, Gillespie and other Republicans slamming the program have not come up with anything on their own to fix it.