Virginia Senate candidate George Allen's three conservative rivals won louder ovations from a conservative gathering at their final debate Friday, while the front-runner instead gave more seasoned and measured responses to subjects including foreign policy and an openly gay judicial nominee.
Still, the third debate between Allen, tea party leader Jamie Radtke, state legislator Bob Marshall and Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson yielded far more agreement among the four than differences between them in the nomination fight Allen is expected to win easily next month in the GOP primary.
The winner faces former Gov. Tim Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who is unopposed for his party's nomination.
The Republicans were largely together in pledging to wield an ax against several federal programs and agencies conservatives despise such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service and particularly President Barack Obama's 2010 health care reforms.
But it was on the issue of U.S. military intervention abroad and the Virginia General Assembly's late-night vote to reject judicial nominee Tracy Thorne-Begland, a Richmond prosecutor who raises twin children with his same-sex partner, where Allen offered subtle differences.
"I'm on the Lord's side,'' Jackson said with the style and fervor of the evangelist he is. He said there is no room for judges allowing judges to exercise their "social proclivities'' on the bench.
Marshall, who led the House fight against Thorne-Begland's confirmation, said he opposed the nominee because as a Navy officer 20 years ago, Thorne-Begland spoke out on national television against the "don't ask, don't tell'' policy on gays in the military just put in place by President Bill Clinton.
And Radtke, like Marshall and Jackson, said Thorne-Begland would have brought an activist gay agenda to the bench. ``The biggest problem we have in the country right now is activist judges,'' she said, noting that a federal judge had overturned a statewide California referendum that outlawed gay marriage.
Allen said he, too, was averse to judicial activism, but was the only candidate to say sexual orientation should play no role in appointing judges.
"Sexual orientation is not a criteria for qualifying a judge or for disqualifying judges,'' Allen said. ``I just don't want activist judges.''
When moderator Bob Holsworth, a Richmond governmental affairs consultant and retired political science professor, asked the four about Obama's decision to involve the U.S. military in the Libyan uprising without congressional consent, Jackson, Marshall and Radtke quickly denounced it roundly.
Allen, however, didn't pounce on Obama. Instead, he recalled the gravity and anxiety of sending U.S. troops into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.
"In my estimation, it's the most solemn decision a president has to make,'' Allen said. ``I have made that decision as far as Iraq and Afghanistan.''
"The concern I have is not whether we have a (congressional) authorization of force, it's whether or not our military is going to have the equipment, the armament, the up-to-date technology that is paramount as they're trying to protect our freedoms,'' he said. ``I'm really worried about the military readiness of our country.''
Radtke was the most aggressive in attacking Allen, who holds vast fundraising, name-recognition and organizational advantages from his terms as governor and senator. It was the last chance for her to appear on the same stage with him.
She lashed out at Allen for supporting heavy federal spending, including earmarked pork projects, in his earlier Senate term _ already one of Kaine's major points of attack on Allen.
"Barack Obama's left-hand man, Tim Kaine, will not run to the right of me on spending,'' she said.
Jackson, perhaps recognizing his dim prospects and those of Radtke and Marshall, was last to speak during the hourlong debate, and the first to strike a conciliatory tone.
"I know that there is a lot of pressure for us to fight each other,'' Jackson said. ``Let me tell you something: I'm not interested in fighting anybody on this podium.''
"I'm here to declare war on Tim Kaine and Barack Obama. If you give me the opportunity, I will send Barack Obama back to whatever home he chooses, and send his court jester, Tim Kaine, with him,'' he said.