Grilling on drilling: Oil dominates Gilmore & Warner's first debate

HOT SPRINGS– If there had been any question before, there remains no doubt after their first debate on Saturday, July 19: the defining issue of this year's U.S. Senate race between former governors Jim Gilmore (R) and Mark Warner (D) is energy– specifically, oil and where it fits into each candidate's plan.

It took thirty-five seconds for the subject to arise.

"[Virginians] are telling me right now that they're distressed about high gas prices," said Gilmore in his opening statement. "The difference between Mark Warner and myself rests in the activities that are part of an energy program that will help people immediately, and that is that we have to have more domestic oil production."

It took Warner a mere eight seconds to thank the Virginia Bar Association for hosting the debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs before pressing the same hot button.

"You know, as I travel Virginia, I also hear about high gas prices," said Warner. "If you want to send a senator who will work on energy and the economy, who will bring people together, who has a proven track record, I ask you to hire me for the position."

From there, Gilmore and Warner steered just about every question moderator and former Washington Post political reporter David Broder posed– from Gov. Warner's failed 1996 campaign to unseat Sen. Warner to Gov. Gilmore's position on tax relief– back to the question of energy.

While Gilmore repeatedly hit home his support for offshore drilling– as well as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska– Warner (while frequently asserting his support for allowing states to drill offshore) de-emphasized oil as part of his "comprehensive energy solution."

"Making sure that states have the right to drill offshore is a piece of the solution," Warner said.

When Broder pressed Warner to be more specific about his position, Warner again emphasized the need for alternatives.

"My position is that Congress should lift the moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling. We leave that decision to the states," he said. "Where I disagree with Jim is that this is somehow the silver bullet. This isn't politics, these are facts. America has three percent of the world's oil; we use 25 percent of the world's oil. The 'drill here, drill now, pay less' sound bite solution, isn't going to solve it."

Gilmore took umbrage at this swipe, and it led him to discuss the second most popular topic of the debate– the former governors' belief that each was "mischaracterizing" the other.

"You know, it's crazy, he continues to mischaracterize," said Gilmore.

Minutes later, Warner said of a Gilmore response, "Again, there were so many mischaracterizations in that answer."

Eventually, an exasperated Gilmore turned to his opponent and said, "You know, calling someone a name-caller is name-calling."

Even the otherwise subdued Broder, during a segment in which candidates could pose questions to one another, said, "In this second round coming up, I would implore the candidates to make these questions, please."

In all, the candidates uttered the words "mischaracterize" and "name-calling"– or derivations thereof– a total of more than two-dozen times during the hour-long debate.

When Warner wasn't busy arguing with Gilmore about mischaracterizations, he characterized himself as a "radical centrist," a label he bolstered by dropping plenty of Republican names. While uttering the name of only one Democrat (Sen. Barack Obama), Warner repeatedly compared himself to Sens. John McCain and John Warner, and invoked the names of GOP heroes like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. He even twice commended Richard Nixon for being "the first president to recognize that we need to end our dependance on oil."

Asked after the debate why he chose to mention so many people from the other side of the aisle, Warner said, "I'm a proud Democrat, but I believe that good ideas don't come with a 'D' or an 'R' attached to them."
If Gilmore looks to future debates to make inroads into Warner's substantial lead in the polls, the Republican nominee has a long way to go. In a July 16 Rasmussen Reports poll, Warner leads Gilmore by 23 points.

Still, stranger things have happened in Virginia politics. In a July 27, 2006 Rasmussen Reports poll, then Sen. George Allen led Democratic opponent Jim Webb by 21 points. Webb went on to defeat Allen by 9,329 votes.