"The fact is, I don't think Mr. Powell understands what being a congressman is about," Cantor said about Powell's criticisms of the Republican-controlled House and the expected ill-effects sequestration will have on Virginia. It was the clearest sign that Powell's jabs began to sting.
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The hour-long debate, sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, was civil but spirited and represented one of Powell's last shots at gaining a foothold in the race. So far Cantor has raised about $6.3 million to Powell's nearly $260,000. And Powell is not getting funding or any other help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
From the beginning of the debate, Powell, an Army vet, cast himself as a Washington outsider and criticized lawmakers for playing the "blame game."
"All the Democratic leaders think that all the problems are caused by the Republicans and all the Republican leaders think all the problems are caused by the Democrats," Powell said. "These are not Republican and Democrat problems. These are American problems."
Cantor, playing to the business-oriented audience, hammered the tax theme. Asked how he would address the fiscal cliff, Cantor said he favors extending the Bush-era tax cuts for a year and reforming the tax code after that. He also pointed to the debt commission he served on with Vice President Joe Biden and the $2 trillion in savings members agreed on, saying they would be key to navigating the fiscal crisis.
Powell did not miss a chance to take a shot at Cantor. During the question portion of the debate, Powell prefaced a question about military pay with a series of other questions--invoking spousal exemption in the STOCK Act and Cantor's relationship with billionaire Sheldon Adelson--that he said he considered asking but decided against. Cantor said the implications in the "aside" weren't true.
"We've got to stick with the facts here," Cantor said. It was attacks like those that led Cantor to wonder aloud whether Powell could make it as a congressman. Powell might have been hit, but he didn't back down. "The biggest danger to national security is you continuing to be the majority leader in the Congress," he replied.
Photo: Eric Cantor, right, listens to Democratic challenger Wayne Powell during a Chamber of Commerce debate in Richmond, Va., Monday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)