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.
One of the more heated exchanges of the debate came on the issue of abortion.
At one point, Warner told the audience of about 200 that Gillespie supported a “personhood” amendment.
“Now this is an issue where you’re making up my views,” Gillespie shot back, claiming he never supported the measure, which abortion-rights groups say would in effect ban most abortions. “When did I support that?”
Warner said he would get Gillespie evidence that shows he supported the amendment.
“I’d like to see it,” the Republican said.
“You’ll get the documentation on that,” Warner responded.
After the debate, Warner’s campaign said the claim was based on the personhood amendment written into the 2004 Republican platform, passed during Gillespie’s watch as head of the RNC. But the press release from Warner’s team quoted Gillespie only as saying that he praised the platform committee for crafting “a proposal that reflects the beliefs … of our party.” The release did not quote Gillespie as supporting the personhood amendment itself.
Gillespie, a Catholic, is pro-life and opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. But unlike many religious conservatives, Gillespie supports making contraceptives more readily available to women, and said birth-control pills should be made available without a prescription. The comment on birth control seemed designed to counter Democrats’ recent claims that Gillespie would try to ban common forms of contraceptives.
Warner, a Presbyterian who is pro-choice, continued to press the abortion issue, asking if Gillespie would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“There’s not going to be a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Gillespie said. “That’s a Supreme Court decision. I’m running for the United States Senate.”
On legalizing same-sex marriage, Gillespie said the issue is not one the Senate, or any branch of the federal government, should decide.
“I love and respect people for who they are, but as a senator, I do not believe it would be my role,” he said. “I believe it is a state issue. It’s for the states to decide.”
Pressed on the matter, Gillespie said he believes “marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Warner says he supports “marriage equality,” and said allowing same-sex couples to marry is not only the right thing to do, “but it also makes good business-sense, too.”
While the debate had its tense moments, with both candidates talking over one another more than once during several heated exchanges, the 90-minute forum included long expanses where the discussion was civil, even genteel. The debate included several points, in fact, where the two men agreed, including on global warming, which both men said has been exacerbated by human activity.
Both candidates also agreed on several foreign policy issues. One difference, however, came on the subject of the conflict in Ukraine. While Warner said Obama should have acted sooner and more forcefully with economic sanctions against Russia, Gillespie said he believes the administration should supply Ukraine with weapons to aid their battle against pro-Russian rebels.
For the most part, Woodruff kept the candidates on track, asking a broad range of questions and enforcing the time limits for answers and responses.
Still, Warner and Gillespie found plenty of wiggle room to return to their generalized attacks on one another. Gillespie continually returned to Warner’s voting record, calling him a “blank check” for Obama, while Warner pressed the “partisan warrior” theme, saying Gillespie would only add to the gridlock that has plagued Washington for years.
No clear winner emerged from Saturday’s debate. While Warner seemed a bit off his game at times, and Gillespie often appeared more relaxed and confident, neither candidate made any major mistakes. That’s good news for Warner, who, given his large lead in the polls, has more to lose and little to gain in debating his opponent. This was the first debate of the campaign and could be the last — Gillespie has accepted invitations to several other debates while Warner has not.
(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)