Tom Sherwood reports.
Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen delivered distinctly different messages when they squared off in a debate in one of the nation's marquee U.S. Senate races.
Today's debate between the two former Virginia governors was the first of three debates to be held over the final seven weeks of the campaign. Their race is one of about a dozen that could decide who's in charge on Capitol Hill in January.
Allen steered his answer to every question back to the issue of the troubled economy and jobs. Even questions about women's rights and gay marriage found Allen answering with allusions to unemployment rates topping 8 percent for nearly four years and a regulatory and tax environment.
Kaine called for a thaw in the frigid partisan atmosphere that has largely paralyzed a divided Congress. He kept going back to Allen's bare-knuckled partisanship, citing his 1994 exhortation to fellow Republicans to knock Democrats' soft teeth down their whiny throats.
Kaine also suggested during the debate that he would be open to considering a minimum tax on Americans.
"I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone," Kaine said when pressed by debate moderator David Gregory on whether Americans should face a minimum federal income tax. "But I do insist, many of the 47 percent that Gov. Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does."
More on Kaine's revelation from NBC News' Michael O'Brien:
Kaine's remark came during a broader exchange about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's comments that he couldn't count on about 47 percent of Americans to vote for him because they pay no income taxes and are "dependent" on government. Romney made those comments in May, which were surreptitiously recorded at the time and publicized this week.
Romney's controversial suggestion has become an issue in several competitive Senate races, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, where Republicans Linda McMahon and Sen. Scott Brown have (respectively) distanced themselves from Romney.
Allen, the former Republican senator who lost his re-election bid in 2006, didn't as sharply distance himself from Romney. "I have my own view," he said about Romney's comments before pivoting to speak about jobs.
The candidates' positions were closest on one foreign policy issue -- that America should be fighting terrorism, not nation-building in Afghanistan.
On social issues, Allen said he believed marriage is a bond between one woman and one man, while Kaine said people should be treated equally under the law with states playing a role in deciding marriage issues.
The debate was hosted by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce at Capital One Bank's headquarters in McLean, Va. It's been a staple for every modern statewide candidate for years and often generated news that affected the course of campaigns. Panelists included NBC4's Julie Carey and Aaron Gilchrist and the Washington Post's Ben Pershing.
Allen and Kaine have been locked in a tight race, but Kaine is now leading Allen for the first time in the race according to two polls, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The seat could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate next term.
The candidates will face off again Oct. 8 in Richmond and Oct. 18 on the Virginia Tech campus.