Each one hammered home the themes of their campaigns. Kaine repeatedly tried to make the case that he'd legislate in a bipartisan way, trying to draw lines between himself and the Democratic establishment in Washington. Allen discussed Kaine's close alliances with D.C. Democrats and relentlessly hammered Kaine's support for defense sequestration cuts.
The candidates repeatedly clashed over tax hikes, spending cuts, entitlement reform and their own legislative records. In a telling exchange, the candidates had their own idea of what a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction was, with Tim Kaine explicitly advocating tax increases.
"When George Allen went into the Senate," Kaine said, referring to Allen's first tenure, "we actually had a surplus... when he left the Senate, the balance sheet was completely out of whack. To fix it, you have to fix it on both sides. Two to three dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases."
"We do need a balance," Allen said. "We need to make cuts in federal spending and we need to grow the economy. We need to have comprehensive tax reform," he said, further advocating cutting the United States' 35% corporate tax rate - one of the highest in the world - to 20%.
Allen appeared poised and practiced, and hit the themes he wanted to hit over and over. Kaine was more aggressive, attempting to go after Allen at every opportunity. Kaine, however, hadn't taken the time to learn the rules of the debate. Multiple times, he asked for an extra speaking rebuttal to counter Allen, and multiple times he was turned down. The moderator had to clarify the rules carefully to Kaine.
Allen was strategically vague on key issues. He evaded giving a yes or no answer on support for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget when Kaine attempted to pin him down on specifics. Allen was also effective discussing women's issues, noting his concern for pay equity when it came to his daughter's entry to the workforce and smacking down a straw man, saying he wouldn't try to legally limit contraceptive availability.
This debate came at a key moment in the race. Tim Kaine and George Allen are tied in Townhall's PollTracker average at 45%-45%, but Kaine has opened a lead in the past few weeks. Three of the last four polls have shown Kaine with at least a five point lead. Allen needed to make up key ground here. He held serve but the restrictive debate format tamped down on a meaningful back-and-forth.
A surprising moment of agreement came at the end, when affirmative action came up. The Supreme Court will soon weigh in on the value of applicant race in school admissions decisions. Kaine said he thinks that schools should be able to "make the student body look like the state they're in." Allen agreed, saying "I'm one who's in favor of affirmative recruitment."