Deep in his heart, Mark Warner may not care much for guns, NASCAR, the death penalty or any of the other Red State symbols he embraced to become Virginia's governor. After all, nothing in Warner's Old Town Alexandria, George Washington University, suburban Connecticut liberal Democratic background leads naturally to the image that Warner successfully sold to Virginia voters in 2001.
But Warner made the sale. And judging by his political success and the fairly serious talk about a presidential bid, he has stayed true to the persona that got him elected.
Now comes another urban Democrat who proposes to persuade conservative Virginia that he poses no danger.
Both Democrat Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore, the state's former attorney general and the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, are eager to sell themselves as moderates who are more like Warner than the other guy. This race, however, will be fought not on the middle ground but on much harsher terrain.
Kilgore is a law-and-order man from rural southwest Virginia. He has a strong twang to his speech, a charming twinkle in his eyes and a heavy emphasis on faith and family in his campaign. He is gearing up to slam Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond and current lieutenant governor, on the same values issues that Warner successfully defused last time.
Kilgore has gotten the memo on Democratic cluelessness about the importance of faith and morality. So get ready for a campaign that has more to do with gay marriage, school prayer, abortion and the death penalty than with traffic, struggling colleges, public schools or soaring medical costs.
Kaine is a Catholic who opposes both the death penalty and abortion, though he says he would enforce state law in both cases.
Kilgore, who attends a Baptist church in Richmond, smells blood on the death penalty issue. His proposed Death Penalty Enhancement bill, watered down by the Senate last month, would have made gang leaders and other non-triggermen eligible for the ultimate sanction in murder cases. (Kilgore witnessed an execution while serving as secretary of public safety, but he couldn't recall the name of the man he saw killed.)
"Faith does shape my views on public policy, from prayer in school to other issues," Kilgore says. "I don't believe in gay adoption -- it's a faith issue for me."
Kaine responds that "I think life is sacred, whether it's abortion or the death penalty." He immediately adds that "I'm going to take an oath and fulfill my office." Meaning he will not delay executions or use the clemency power unless he is persuaded that a convict is actually innocent.
Kaine's attempt to thread a politically acceptable path between his core beliefs and his proposed policies creates a huge opening for Kilgore. What does Kaine really believe, Kilgore will ask. If those are his true beliefs, shouldn't he govern accordingly? If he's willing to shelve his core values, what does that say about his character?
Kaine is better versed on the issues. He'll appeal to parents with his smart positions on testing and schools. He's an easier sell in Northern Virginia than Kilgore, who comes off as someone who doesn't know much about life in the big metropolis.
But Kaine so far is a cautious candidate. He says he has no position "yet" on building a new Potomac River crossing. (Kilgore wants one.) In theory, Kaine favors widening Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, but he's not sure. (Kilgore says, "We have to do it.")
Kaine knows Kilgore will come at him full-bore on values. "But I don't feel a need to solve people's social issues for them," Kaine says. He sees intolerance in the anti-gay and anti-immigrant legislation that won such a friendly reception in Richmond this year. But Kaine believes Democrats have backed themselves into a corner on values issues; the party must find a way to embrace faith.
So here's where Kaine stands on gay adoption: "No couples in Virginia can adopt other than a married couple -- that's the right policy. Gay individuals should be able to adopt."
Huh? So it's better for a child to be raised by a single gay parent than by two gay parents?
Yes, he says, because the concern is "the legal status of what happens to the child if the relationship breaks up."
With Kaine already splitting hairs in such Clintonian style, Kilgore is sharpening his straightedge. But watch out: Russ Potts, the wily GOP senator from Winchester, is jumping into the race as an independent. Not clear where we're headed, but the ride will be a blast.