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Warner, Gillespie meet in first debate

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Print this page by Tim Thornton

The first debate between Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie was nearly over before either man came close to making news. When Warner turned a discussion of same-sex marriage into remarks about women’s reproductive rights, Gillespie said he thinks women should be able to buy contraceptives “at the drug store and the grocery store” without a prescription. When the candidates came down from the stage, Gillespie said that really was something new from his campaign.

“I’ve never really said it before. I’ve never been asked before, but that is my view,” he told reporters. “I think that makes a lot of sense when the medical society responsible for determining whether it should be or should not be a prescription drug recommends that it be made available over the counter. I think that would make life a lot easier for a lot of adult women.”
Over the counter medications are not covered by health insurance.


The debate was at the Virginia Bar Association’s 124th Summer Meeting, held this weekend at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. It was the first VBA summer meeting at The Greenbrier since 2005, but moderator Judy Woodruff suggested it might start a trend of holding political debates in neighboring states.


The bar association has a tradition of inviting statewide candidates to debate at its annual meeting. Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, moderated last summer’s gubernatorial debate between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe. So far, this year’s senate race has generated much less interest than that contest, which McAuliffe eventually won by less than three percentage points. A recent Roanoke College poll shows Warner with a 25 point lead over Gillespie. Real Clear Politics, an organization that averages recent polling to try to give a clearer picture of political races, puts Warner 19 points ahead. Gillespie has never been closer than 14 points – and that was in a Rasmussen poll taken in January.


Warner, Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006, holds a significant fundraising advantage over Gillespie. Warner has raised nearly $14 million and has nearly $9 million on hand. Gillespie has raised just over $4 million and has just over $3 million on hand.


Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate in the race, was his party’s candidate for governor last year. As it did last year, the bar association left Sarvis out of the debate because the association believes he has virtually no chance of winning. He collected less than 7 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election.


Gillespie’s revelation of his opinion on contraceptives was a rare moment in a debate that consisted mostly of each candidate trying to tie the other to unpopular people and policies. Gillespie constantly yoked Warner to President Barack Obama, the Affordable Care Act and what Gillespie sees as diminishing American influence around the world because what he characterized as “errors of omission” in foreign policy. The bipartisan Gov. Warner wouldn’t recognize the partisan Sen. Warner, Gillespie repeated. Warner tied Gillespie to Enron’s scandals, to the Bush administration’s deficit increases and Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Warner painted the election as a contest between his moderate, problem solving self and Gillespie the “partisan warrior” and lobbyist. Gillespie claimed his lobbying experience will make him a more effective senator.


“I’ve advised people on how you get things done with bipartisan support in Washington D.C. and was very effective at doing that,” he said.


“It’s not about being a lobbyist,” Warner said. “It’s also about who you lobby for – Enron, largest corporate fraud in modern American history. That’s not the kind of solution I believe to partisan gridlock and the problems we’ve got in Washington – and this election will be about that.”


The Hill, which covers nothing but Congress, has put numbers to the common perception that the current Congress has accomplished very little. The 113th Congress has passed 126 laws so far, according to The Hill’s count, but only 99 laws The Hill considers “substantive and not related to ceremonial recognitions.” The previous Congress had passed 144 laws at the same point, 105 of them substantive. Substantive laws, in this count “have some tangible impact on policy, even if it is as minor as a land transfer.”


Repeatedly, Gillespie attacked Warner for his vote supporting the Affordable Care Act, saying the law needs to be replaced. When asked by reporters what he would replace it with, Gillespie’s list overlapped with changes Warner said on the stage that he wants, including bringing more competition to the market by letting companies sell policies across state lines. Gillespie said a recent federal appeals court panel decision that holds federal ACA subsidies unconstitutional in states that, like Virginia, have not set up exchanges, puts Virginians’ health coverage at risk. Warner pointed out that another appeals court disagreed and used it as another opportunity to tie Gillespie to a dysfunctional Washington culture.


“I support the Virginia court,” Warner said. “My opponent supports the DC court.”


While much of the debate was an exercise in spin, the candidates did come down clearly on some issues. Warner said he is for marriage equality. Gillespie said, “I do not believe in government sanction of same sex marriage.”


Warner supports the Import Export Bank. Gillespie does not.


Gillespie would not say whether he wants the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion overturned, even when Warner asked him directly, implying his opinion is irrelevant.


“There’s not going to be a vote to overturn Roe versus Wade,” Gillespie said. “That’s a Supreme Court decision. I’m running for the U.S. Senate.”


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