Katrina Injected Into Va. Race

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

RICHMOND -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine is asking voters to think about the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina as they evaluate him and his opponents in the Nov. 8 election on the most mundane of political topics: their management skills.

Gingerly at first, and lately with more gusto, Kaine is making the hurricane's aftermath an issue in the final weeks of the 2005 campaign. In speeches and advertisements, Kaine is betting that voters are ready to care more about how a governor actually governs.

"We have all watched on television the last month or so, and we've all seen the consequences of poor management," Kaine said in a speech to donors last week. "We've all seen the difference that management can make. It's not just about boring details. Management can be life or death."

Kaine touts his experience as "a mayor, running a city," and his job as second-in-command to a governor widely praised for his businesslike management.

Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, Kaine's principal opponent, replies that he, as secretary of public safety and attorney general, has actually had experience running a state response to natural disasters.

Talking about the nuts and bolts of what a governor does each day has rarely been a winning political strategy. Former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis found in 1988 that while touting his competence as a state leader helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination, it was hardly a path to victory.

But experts in political management say the failures of state, local and federal governments to respond to the destruction caused by Katrina -- witnessed on television -- could make voters more eager to hear from Virginia's candidates how they would run the state.

"It's the unusual circumstance that puts an unusual spotlight on the role of the governor," said Dennis W. Johnson, the associate dean at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "I think that this is going to have a lot of impact."

It is the second election in a row that Virginia's candidates for governor have been faced with responding to a national tragedy late in their campaigns. Four years ago, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the state campaign temporarily halted.

In a debate 10 days after the attacks that marked the return of active politics, Democrat Mark R. Warner and Republican Mark L. Earley clashed over who had the skills to govern the state in troubled and dangerous times.

Warner quickly unveiled a $15.5 million plan to revamp the state's emergency operations center, and Earley pledged to improve its communications network, build new police facilities and increase funding for anti-terrorism initiatives.

This year, less than two weeks after Katrina hit, Kaine proposed a "citizen alert network" to inform people of disasters through text messages on their cell phones. He also called for improving evacuation routes and creating an emergency relief fund to offer post-disaster assistance.

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