By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005
A day after President Bush beat U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry in Virginia by 9 percentage points last year, the president's campaign manager in the state called the results a demoralizing blow to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine.
The president's defeat of Kerry was great news for Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore, opined Ken Hutcheson, who is also Kilgore's campaign manager.
"How on earth do they have the spirit and the heart to move forward? This was such a crushing defeat," Hutcheson said at the time. "We've got the momentum. We've got the unity. We've got the enthusiasm."
Hutcheson might not have imagined the presidential turnaround almost a year later.
Mired in Iraq and battered by accusations that he didn't react well to Hurricane Katrina, Bush has become anything but an asset for Kilgore, according to a Washington Post poll conducted last week in Virginia.
Of registered voters surveyed, 47 percent say they approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president. That is higher than Bush's approval rating nationwide but far lower than the ratings for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and U.S. Sen. George Allen (R).
Worse for Kilgore, the poll suggests that Bush, who endorsed Kilgore this summer, is unlikely to provide an electoral boost in the Nov. 8 election.
Asked whether Bush's endorsement would make them more or less likely to vote for Kilgore, 45 percent of voters say it would make them less likely. Twenty-eight percent say they would be more likely to vote for Kilgore because of Bush's backing.
Bush hosted a Northern Virginia fundraiser for Kilgore this year and raised more than $2 million. And he mentioned Kilgore at an energy speech he gave in West Point, Va. Campaign aides said they do not know whether Bush will be making more visits to Virginia before the election.
Kilgore's advisers said Bush's sagging popularity will not affect how they run the rest of the campaign.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the candidate, said the success of the Kilgore campaign does not rest on Bush's popularity. By contrast, he said, Kaine is trying to "latch onto the popular kid at school" by campaigning with Warner.
But political observers said the president's problems create a far different electoral atmosphere for Kilgore than his advisers expected in the euphoric aftermath of the 2004 presidential election.
Republican candidates in Virginia typically get an edge from a GOP president because moderates and independents associate the candidate with the popular president. That holds true, observers said, even in state races in which the issues are different than those on the national stage.
"If the president were popular, that would be a big advantage," Mark J. Rozell, a professor of politics at George Mason University, said.
Kaine has the potential to benefit from Warner's popularity. In the poll, 76 percent of voters say they approve of the way Warner is handling his job, and 65 percent say the state is on the right track.
That popularity has yet to rub off on Kaine, who trails Kilgore by 4 percentage points among registered voters. And time is running out for Kaine to make the connection.
Mo Elleithee, Kaine's spokesman, said that will be easier because Kaine does not have to worry about a wildly popular Republican president working for the other team.
"I'm not ready to morph Bush's picture into Jerry Kilgore's," he said after hearing the poll numbers, adding, "But then again. . . ."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.