Senator Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie squared off in Richmond Monday night in their final televised debate.
With about three weeks before Election Day, Warner, a Democratic incumbent, still maintains a strong lead. But he does have some competition from Republican challenger Ed Gillespie and the libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, and this race could play a larger role in the possible changing landscape of the Senate.
In the debate - which excluded Sarvis - Warner and Gillespie sparred on taxes, ethics, and other issues. Public polls have shown Warner with a comfortable lead over Gillespie, who said he believes the race is tightening in its final weeks.
The debate got heated at times - particularly when Warner brought up Gillespie's past lobbying work for Enron. And Gillespie took shots at Warner based on the recent admission that he did call former state Senator Phil Puckett and spoke about jobs for Puckett's daughter. Warner made the call after being asked to do so by the governor's Chief of Staff Paul Reagan and fellow Democrat in the state Senator Dick Saslaw. However, Warner says there was no specific offer and he did nothing unethical.
Aside from discussing the economy, education, Social Security and campaign finance reform, Warner attacked Gillespie for allegedly signing an "Americans for Tax Reform" pledge. Copies circulated by Warner's campaign team Monday night include a scanned letter from Grover Norquist congratulating Gillespie on his commitment to fighting taxes.
“Read the letter. He took the pledge. If you go above and beyond the pledge, that means you're not even willing to close a single tax loophole,” Warner said.
Gillespie said, "I'm not for raising taxes, but I don't sign pledges. There are a number of pledges floating around out there."
The three-page document from Warner's press officers does not show an actual signature from Gillespie.
As Warner wraps up his first term serving in the U.S. Senate, he reflects on his career in politics and business, transitioning from a Virginia statesman into dealing with the gridlock in Washington.
"And why I'm asking folks to rehire me is the Senate has to do better, and the only way it's going to do better is if you've got folks who are willing to work together and common ground," Warner said.
He identifies as a centrist Democrat. His top priority is continued economic recovery. “I think progress has been made, but there's still a lot more that needs to be done,” he said. After earning degrees from George Washington University and Harvard Law School, he became an entrepreneur. He flourished in the telecommunications industry and eventually co-founded a company that became Nextel. Also on his resume, he's a former governor of Virginia and member of the General Assembly.
A former Republican National Committee chairman, Gillespie says he offers Virginians a stronger path. His ideals clash with Warner's, primarily those about health care. He accuses Warner of associating too closely with President Barack Obama.
"Having worked to help pass Obamacare, those are things that aren't popular with the people of Virginia, and they know that we can do better. And my policies would make things better for us,” Gillespie said.
After years as a GOP strategist, an adviser to George W. Bush, and a lobbyist, he advocates for an overhaul to the Affordable Care Act and harnessing American energy sources.
"Every vote I cast in the Senate will have a very simple test: Will this bill ease the squeeze on hard-working Virginians and make it easier for the unemployed to find work?" Gillespie said.
Sarvis, a libertarian, emerges as an entirely different voice. “They're both Washington insiders and they've both part of the problem,” he said.
Sarvis says despite the fierce division between Democrats and Republicans, he thinks Warner and Gillespie have more in common than one might think. Sarvis, who has an Ivy League education, hasn't given up on raising third party presence.
"The two parties and the two candidates are very similar in terms of cronyism and corporate welfare. It just goes to show what this is all about. For those two parties, it's about power; it's not the public interest," Sarvis said.
While Monday's was the last debate, Warner and Gillespie head to Danville Tuesday for a forum with the Sorensen Institute.