Warner, Gillespie meet Saturday for first Virginia Senate debate

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie will meet Saturday for their first debate, an encounter that could shed light on the GOP’s prospects of putting the seat in play this November.

The 90-minute session, moderated by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff, will broadcast live online at 11 a.m. ET from the Virginia Bar Association’s summer meeting at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. You can watch a livestream of the debate here.

Warner, who is running for a second six-year term, has the early advantage in the polls, and fundraising. A Roanoke College survey released this week showed the Democrat with a 25-point lead over Gillespie. Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who was not invited to participate in the debate, polled at five percent.

In the money race, Warner hauled in $2.7 million in the quarter that ended June 30, leaving his campaign with nearly $9 million in the bank. Gillespie, meanwhile, raised $1.9 million in the quarter, giving him $3.1 million cash on hand.

Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and past chairman of the Republican National Committee, gave the GOP a top recruit when he announced in January that he would challenge Warner, a popular former governor and co-founder of the company that became Nextel.

Warner’s campaign has stressed the Democrat’s bipartisan image, which includes work with Republicans on a “grand bargain” deficit reduction proposal. The strategy by the Gillespie campaign is to undercut Warner’s centrist message by characterizing the Democrat as a “blank check” for President Obama, including support for the health care law.

While Warner holds a commanding lead, he appears to be taking no chances, especially with 53 percent of Virginia voters in the Roanoke College poll disapproving of the president’s job performance. On Wednesday, he called on the Obama administration to ease health care regulations on employers or delay the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act for another year.

For the moment, the Virginia Senate race remains an uphill climb for Republicans. The GOP would either need Warner to stumble badly or for a wave to come the party’s way in the next four months in order to really put the seat in play.