The debate shed little new light on positions of either candidate in a race that could help determine whether the GOP retains control of the Senate.
Questions were mostly replays from previous debates this year, ranging from Allen's "macaca" gaffe on Aug. 11 to Iraq, and they generally evoked boilerplate answers, often lifted directly from campaign position papers.
Each candidate attempted to use the debate to clearly distinguish himself from his opponent — Allen to reassure conservatives who were unsettled by his missteps that have erased his clear lead and Webb to advance himself as a populist champion of the middle class and connect Allen with President Bush, the war and tax cuts for the wealthy.
The debate spun out of control during a segment in which candidates were allowed to ask each other questions. Allen and Webb became argumentative, talking over one another and making it virtually impossible to understand what either was saying. The most heated exchange centered on taxes. Allen said he has supported tax cuts that Webb has criticized. Webb said tax cuts during a time of increased federal spending and a growing deficit are unwise.
"You can't keep spending like this without increasing revenues," Webb said.
Allen asked Webb if he knew "how many Virginians have benefited from the tax relief you criticize." For nearly a minute, the candidates talked at the same time before the moderator finally intervened and Allen ended the exchange by saying: "The answer is 3 million Virginians."
On foreign policy, Webb called for a "diplomatic solution" to the war in Iraq while Allen stuck by his support of President Bush's strategy.
"Rather than retreating, we need to make sure Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists," Allen said.
Allen dismissed as "baseless allegations" claims by some of his former University of Virginia football teammates that in the 1970s he freely used an epithet to describe black people. He urged people to look at his record on race, including his efforts to help historically black colleges and universities.
Webb said Allen's use of the word "macaca," an obscure racial slur, to single out a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian descent amounted to "unnecessary bullying."
Asked about his 1979 Washingtonian magazine article, "Women Can't Fight," Webb said he is now comfortable with the role of women in the military.
Allen touted his own record of appointing women to Cabinet positions when he was Virginia's governor from 1993-1997 and his efforts to get more women interested in science and engineering.
Throughout the debate, Webb looked tense, his eyes riveted on his off-camera questioners or on Allen. His answers were detailed, sometimes to the point of wonkishness; his delivery sometimes halting.
Allen, a veteran of numerous television debates in his long political career, appeared relaxed, his eyes connecting comfortably with the camera, even as he offered up refrains he has used for years and made a practice of opening his response with attacks on Webb.
At least three times, Allen took pains to link Webb, a former Republican, with Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee.
The most bizarre moment of the debate, however, came when Webb tried to corner Allen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a question about the Senkaku Islands.
The uninhabited islands lie about 100 miles northeast of Taiwan, and China and Japan claim the islands' fishing grounds and oil and mineral deposits, creating the potential for a major conflict, Webb said.
"I'd have to study the issue more fully to give you a complete answer," Allen said.
It was payback of sorts for Webb, who was similarly stumped during a July debate when Allen asked him about the best use of Craney Island, a manmade peninsula in Portsmouth created from mud dredged from the Elizabeth River ship channel.
Tuesday is the last day for Virginians to register to vote before the November 7 election.