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Uncovering concealed liberalism

KIDS AND politicians say the darndest things. Virginia state Sen. Emily Couric, (D-Charlottesville) and businesswoman and Senate hopeful Jane Maddux (R), faced off Tuesday night in the second debate of the Youth Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Center for Governmental Studies. Six students from area middle and high schools each asked one question of their own choosing. Center Director Larry J. Sabato, government and foreign affairs professor, opened the debate with an appropriate comment: These kids don't know what not to ask.

Questions ranged from school safety to gay rights and from the death penalty to lottery funding. These kids knew their stuff, and what they found out is this: At face value, there does not seem to be much difference between the candidates - both seem safe, conservative choices. But when probed, it is clear that Couric has more liberal leanings.

Let's see what you know with some "politics is a good thing" candidate identification.

Meet candidate X. She advocates good old Americana family values such as parental involvement in education, personal accountability for one's actions, small government, and the free market system.

She believes that managed health should be held accountable for the harm it does, and that everyone should have affordable health care. She believes that everyone is created equal, and that homosexuals should have equal opportunities and equal rights. She thinks that schools should not be punished with fund withdrawal for not meeting the Standards of Learning, but that schools should be given benefits for doing well. She believes in the death penalty.

All of the above sound like solidly conservative points. All of the above would look great on campaign literature and would just about fill a 30-second TV spot. But a spot for whom? Is candidate X the Democrat, Couric, or the Republican, Maddux?

Trick question - it's both. The above statements fit with both candidate platforms, as long as those platforms keep their conservative spin. Both of these candidates are advocating conservative stances and aiming for the largest audience: the center-right.

Political strategy says that a candidate should give up on the votes she can't win and take for granted the votes she knows she's got. Instead of wasting time and precious money on the solid yeses and nos, she should concentrate on the "maybes" - the swing voters who don't really know what they want.

A 30-second radio ad containing the above points would sound pretty good to a middle-of-the-road Charlottesvillian, especially one with school-age children. But what that citizen wouldn't know is that the devil is in the details.

Couric does not support tax credits or vouchers for non-public schooling. She would rather fix the public education system and build charter schools than give parents the choice of public versus private. Maddux, on the other hand, believes that the free market system would improve all schools, and that vouchers and tax credits may be the best way to level the playing field so everyone has access to good education.

Both candidates believe in welfare reform, but once again, the "how" differs for each. Maddux believes in small government and supports the reforms that have reduced the state's welfare rolls by 67 percent already. She says that "we don't want government to be the head of the household," but her opponent, Couric, would actually increase government involvement in the lives of welfare recipients. She advocates government-funded health care, childcare and transportation.

Both support the death penalty. There are slight differences for these two candidates, however. Maddux supports the 21-day rule, a law that says that new evidence cannot be introduced into a capital trial more than 21 days after sentencing. Couric opposes it.

Both candidates want lottery money to continue to fund education. Couric would put restrictions on that funding, though, requiring that half be used for construction. Virginia's builders and contractors must love that. Maddux, on the other hand, would rather give funding to schools - unfettered by Richmond's restrictions - so that schools in Galax can buy computers if that's what they need, and so that Hampton can fund early reading programs if that's what they prefer.

Both candidates seem like safe, conservative choices at a glance, but what would happen to Couric's veiled liberalism if Democrats overcame the 21-19 difference that now lets Republicans control the Senate? Her more liberal leanings would be encouraged and for the next six years she would be under no pressure to remain so conservative. The nitty gritty differences come out only with a close look at these two candidates - that's why programs such as the Center for Governmental Studies' Youth Leadership Initiative are so important. From debates such as these, we can see what a liberal in conservative clothing looks like under the TV makeup, and our eyes can be opened to a promising new challenger.

(Emily Harding's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.)