RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie hammered each other over ethics and taxes Monday in their third and final scheduled debate, an event that featured some of the candidates' feistiest exchanges so far.
Warner is a former governor and cellphone pioneer seeking a second term in the Senate. Gillespie is a former lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush.
Public polls have shown Warner with a comfortable lead over Gillespie, who said he believes the race is tightening in its final weeks.
The event was hosted by the AARP Virginia and the League of Women Voters of Virginia at a television studio in Richmond and broadcast statewide.
Gillespie quickly pivoted from the debate's first question — about voting rights — to zone in on recent news media reports that Warner had discussed potential job possibilities for the daughter of a former state senator.
The FBI is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett's resignation in June. Warner has acknowledged that he "brainstormed" with Puckett's son about possible job opportunities for Puckett's daughter, including a federal judgeship, in an attempt to dissuade Puckett from resigning but without making any explicit job offers. Puckett's resignation gave Republicans control of the state Senate.
Presidents appoint federal judges, often based on recommendations from U.S. senators.
Gillespie said he was troubled by the news, first reported by The Washington Post last week, of Warner's conversation with Puckett's son.
"The federal bench has a big impact on our lives. We need to make sure that qualified people are put on the bench," said Gillespie. "I would never play politics with recommending judicial appointments."
Warner countered that he had done nothing wrong and later in the debate brought up Gillespie's lobbying work for the failed energy giant Enron. Gillespie said he was unaware of Enron's fraudulent business practices when he represented them.
Warner accused Gillespie of signing anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's pledge to not raise taxes, saying the move signaled Gillespie's partisan rigidity on budget matters.
"He took the pledge," Warner said. "That means you're not even willing to close a single tax loophole, and that puts us back in sequestration, that puts us back cutting senior services, that puts us back cutting the military, cutting education."
Gillespie did not actually sign the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" of Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform. But Gillespie did send Norquist a letter with nearly identical wording from the pledge, and Norquist said in a letter that Gillespie's position went "above and beyond" the letter of the pledge. Warner's campaign handed out copies of both letters to reporters during the debate.
Gillespie said he doesn't sign pledges but his position on taxes is clear.
"Mark Warner wants to raise taxes more," Gillespie said. "I will fight tax increases and that's the debate we ought to have and I'm happy to have that debate."
As he's done throughout the campaign, Gillespie repeatedly accused Warner of being a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama's administration and criticized Warner's vote in support of the Affordable Care Act, which Gillespie said is hurting Virginia's economy.
"I will not be a blank check for the president; I will be a check and balance on the president," Gillespie said.
Warner called Gillespie "the major cheerleader" for former President George W. Bush's unsuccessful bid to privatize social security, a move he said would be disastrous for Virginia's seniors.
Warner and Gillespie found common ground in their criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Ebola outbreak. Warner said the administration should have moved more quickly in setting up Ebola screenings at major U.S. airports, while Gillespie said the U.S. should have already imposed a flight ban on planes coming from West Africa.