THE POLITICAL dugout chatter of the moment in Virginia may be about the odds of a Democratic presidential candidate carrying the commonwealth -- a feat not achieved in 40 years -- but the more consuming interest of the two parties is in their prospects of a far livelier campaign season next year. That is when Virginians will elect a new governor, and their options seem fairly well set already. Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) have been in the money hunt for years and at this point are neck and neck in amounts raised. But still lurking in the GOP gubernatorial wings is former governor James S. Gilmore III, poised just in case Mr. Kilgore stumbles. Unlike most of the prominent figures in the party -- the entire GOP congressional delegation, nearly all the Republican state legislators and virtually all the party's unit chairmen -- Mr. Gilmore has not endorsed Mr. Kilgore.
Much more will be on the 2005 political menu, including still wide-open contests in both parties for lieutenant governor and attorney general and some jockeying among Republicans for seats in the House of Delegates, where a deep philosophical split in the ranks may spark some unusually heated intraparty contests in the primary next June 14. The rift is between anti-tax warriors who have held sway in the House and other members who sense growing public sentiment for a moderate approach. The tax-if-we-must members recognize the need for revenue to support schools, roads, universities and other services that Virginians as well as businesses shopping for sites consider essential.
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The no-new-taxers -- including Mr. Kilgore so far -- criticize Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) for breaking his campaign promise not to support a tax increase. The governor replies that this was before he got a close look at the financial wreckage left by Mr. Gilmore and after he cut billions of dollars from the budget and still came up short. Enough lawmakers -- led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) and a group of fiscally responsible Republicans in the House -- broke the hard-liners' stranglehold, and an increase squeaked through the legislature in overtime.
The impact at this point: Mr. Warner has been riding high in the polls for his ability to work with a Republican-controlled legislature, and the Republicans have been riding off in all directions with fingers to the wind. For now, at least, Mr. Kaine -- who has yet to organize a campaign as thoroughly as Mr. Warner did early on in his run -- can align himself with the governor in support of raising money for services considered essential while taking advantage of the Republicans' infighting.
Adding financial fuel to the fires are at least three major groups that are organizing fundraising campaigns to elect those viewed as mainstream candidates for House seats and to defeat incumbents they consider to be extreme. As first reported by The Post's Michael D. Shear, some of the state's wealthiest business executives hope to raise $1 million to $2 million by next summer's primaries, which would make their political action committee one of the largest in Virginia.
Mr. Warner plans a similar effort for Democrats in the legislature, and the state Senate's top Republicans have created a PAC to raise money for fiscally moderate GOP candidates. Various national and state anti-tax groups are mobilizing to try to defeat legislators who voted for the tax increases this year, but the GOP lawmakers who opposed any increases have yet to form a fundraising effort of their own.
All of this pregame activity may have little effect on the party lineups in the House. But if it can reduce the damaging influence of the rigid anti-tax alliance that dominates the House Republican Caucus, Virginia would be the better for it.