U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) and his three challengers faced off last Tuesday evening in the only debate of Wolf's surprisingly competitive re-election bid.
Wolf, 67, and his top opponent, Democrat Judy Feder, 59, spent much of the debate focused on the Iraq war, which has left 2,700 U.S. soldiers dead and cost $379 billion.
Wolf told the crowd of several hundred voters that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which was funded by Wolf's appropriations subcommittee, is hammering out an alternative to the United States' current strategy in Iraq.
"This very well may be the way out," Wolf said of the Iraq commission, which includes former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Wolf, a 26-year incumbent, said he believes the United States should be reaching out a diplomatic hand to other unfriendly nations around Iraq, such as Syria. He added that he agrees with Baker, who has said that "staying the course" in Iraq is no longer a viable option.
Feder, who is dean of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, pointedly criticized Wolf on Iraq, saying he has hidden behind the Iraq Study Group rather than articulating his own views about the war's direction. "I thought that's what members of Congress are supposed to do," she said, drawing the loudest applause of the evening.
If she is elected Nov. 7, Feder said her first action in office would be to seek the removal of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and to demand that President George Bush present a plan to Congress about how to stabilize Iraq and bring U.S. troops home.
"While we cannot and should not pick up and leave Iraq, it is time for a new direction," said Feder. "Our soldiers have done their duty. Congress and Frank Wolf have not done theirs."
IRAQ WAS NOT the only issue that drew sharp disagreement between Wolf and Feder at the debate, which was held at the Dulles Hyatt and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Fairfax and Loudoun.
When asked if he would allocate federal funding for stem-cell research, Wolf said he supports adult and umbilical cord stem-cell research, but he does not believe embryos should be destroyed in the name of medical research. "People of conscience say that is a problem," said Wolf.
Feder, on the other hand, said embryonic stem-cell research holds the promise of new treatments for diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and disabilities like spinal cord injuries.
"We have the capacity with stem-cell research to cure some of the world's worst diseases," she said. "Sadly, Congressman Wolf has opposed stem-cell research, standing in the way of the cures we need."
On the issue of the nation's $248 billion federal deficit, Feder said the government "has been spending like drunken sailors."
"The problem that we're facing is that Congress has squandered our resources," she said.
If she is elected, Feder said, she would not support extending the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but would vote to keep tax cuts for the middle class. Feder also proposed freezing Congressional salaries until the deficit is under control.
For his part, Wolf said he backs all of the Bush administration's tax cuts, especially reductions of the federal estate tax.
To control federal spending, Wolf pointed to his legislation to create a bipartisan commission that would consider the merits of all federal spending Ñ including Social Security, Medicare, taxes and more Ñ and then require Congress to vote on the recommendations in an up-or-down vote.
The candidates were also asked if they planned to vote for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Wolf simply said that he would vote in favor of it. Feder said she is opposed to the measure because it would write "discrimination into Virginia's constitution."
THE OTHER two candidates in the 10th Congressional District race, Neeraj Nigam, a 52-year-old Independent from Sterling, and Wilbur Wood, a 51-year-old Libertarian from Berryville, both said they are dissatisfied with the direction the country has taken under Bush's leadership.
Nigam, a systems analyst, said he wants to cut federal spending, tighten the nation's borders and find a way to offer affordable health care to the most vulnerable members of society.
Nigam said the top issue facing the nation is homeland security. Five years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he said, America remains vulnerable.
"The terrorists are trying to come over here," Nigam said. "President Bush says he is afraid the terrorists are sneaking into our country, but his is doing nothing about it." A nuclear suitcase bomb detonated in Washington, D.C., he added, could "obliterate" the entire 10th Congressional District.
Wood, an optician, said he is "just a country boy" and wants to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and drastically reduce federal spending. Wood said he believes the federal government has no business funding education or transportation.
Wood said his Libertarian beliefs offer a third way apart from the traditional Republican and Democratic politics.
"For 12 years we ate scrambled eggs. Then for 12 years we ate poached eggs. Now it looks like we're going back to scrambled eggs," he said. "I like to eat pancakes."