In a 75-minute debate sponsored by the Republican National Lawyers Association at George Mason University Law School on March 27, the two candidates for the GOP nomination for Attorney General of Virginia demonstrated their admiration for each other and offered no help to undecided audience members to make a choice at the RPV convention in May.
Rob Bell and Mark Obenshain each mentioned several instances in which the two of them were copatrons of the same legislation, from the constitutional amendment protecting property rights to the bills mandating photo ID for voters. They metaphorically patted each others’ backs from start to finish, and by the end of the debate, it was impossible to discern whether the two of them disagree on any substantive issues.
If there was any difference between the candidates, it was in presentation. Bell tended to stand stock-still when answering questions, periodically gesturing to make a point. Obenshain, in contrast, paced back and forth while addressing the audiences, appearing slightly more dynamic but no less emphatic than his opponent.
Former Governor and Attorney General Jim Gilmore moderated the debate, asking questions of his own and delivering questions from the audience on a wide range of issues, from how best to run the Attorney General’s office to whether Bell and Obenshain would be as “activist” as Ken Cuccinelli, to matters of crime and punishment and constitutional issues like gay marriage.
Gilmore often took the opportunity to drill down, with follow-up questions that he described as “cross-examination” in an interview with me just after the debate ended. Gilmore and the two candidates agreed that the questions were substantive and that the format of the debate — with just the two of them on stage — allowed them more latitude for answering questions in depth. (Previous forums have also included all or some of the lieutenant governor candidates, creating real limits on time to answer questions and constraining the possibilities for thoughtful replies.)
I was able to capture most of the debate on video, but unfortunately my camera’s battery died in the middle of Mark Obenshain’s closing statement and before Rob Bell began his. In the interest of fairness to the two of them, I cut the video after the last question, which was about immigration.
Note at the very beginning that Governor Gilmore says, “No pressure, gentlemen. Any flub you make tonight will be seen and heard from here to Red China, so don’t worry about it, nothing to be afraid of.”
Indeed, with the growth of news outlets like Bearing Drift, this is quite true. To the credit of both Bell and Obenshain, neither made any “flub” worthy of embarrassment. This will no doubt come as a disappointment to Mark Herring, the likely (but not assured) Democratic nominee for Attorney General of Virginia this fall.