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State GOP Expects Divisive Campaign

Va. Party Leaders Strategize for 2005

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C01

HOT SPRINGS, Va., Dec. 4 -- Virginia Republicans launched their 2005 political campaign this weekend with a glitzy gathering of party leaders and an early peek at the internal battles they are poised to wage as they try to retake the top leadership of state government.

By next fall, GOP leaders hope to have once again come together to take back the governorship from the Democrats. But for the next six months, a struggle between conservatives and moderates will put the party's deep philosophical and regional divisions on display.

The record of Sen. Bill Bolling (Hanover), who is running for lieutenant governor, was criticized on fliers distributed at the session. (Steve Helber -- AP)

That give-and-take started this weekend, as 600 activists, politicians and party officials assembled at the Homestead resort for a mix of expensive food, late-night drinking, lots of handshaking and more than a few arguments about who are the best candidates to run for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general next year.

In a straw poll, suggesting which candidates are early favorites among the leadership, the attendees gave their support to House Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), who is running for attorney general, and to Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover), who is running for lieutenant governor.

The weekend amounted to a coronation for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who was the only candidate for governor listed on the party's straw poll ballot.

But Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who is supporting Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton for lieutenant governor, said other GOP campaigns could be tough and divisive.

"That's a chapter to be written. Nobody knows," he said. "There are going to be serious jabs, absolutely."

Party members said the hard-edged campaigning will take a back seat during the 2005 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 12. By law, legislators are prohibited from taking campaign contributions during the session, and by practice many candidates suspend political attacks while they are in Richmond.

But the intra-party struggle will continue in the Capitol's two chambers as anti-tax lawmakers angry about last session's tax increases clash with moderate Republicans who favor greater investment in state programs. Some conservative lawmakers said they will push to use higher-than-expected tax collections from a booming economy to provide tax cuts or a one-time tax rebate.

"We're going to raise our issues at the right time, even if it means a little less harmony," said Del. Benjamin R. Cline (R-Amherst). "Those of us who opposed the tax increases last year were confident the economy would provide for new revenue. Giving back proves us right."

But some senior Republican senators have said that much of the state's revenue already is committed to paying for ever-growing state programs. "There is no surplus. None," Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) told Cline and others over a trout dinner Friday night.

The Republicans' internal battles are destined to be resolved in the June primary election for statewide offices and the House of Delegates.

On one level, the party's 21st annual gathering, held at the Homestead for the first time, was a celebration of President Bush's victory and a display of the party's resolve to beat Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democrats' likely nominee for governor.

The GOP central committee unanimously approved a resolution condemning tax increases, and the crowd applauded wildly for Kilgore, who said in a lunchtime speech that "Tim Kaine is John Kerry with a Richmond address."

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