On Va.'s Gubernatorial Stage, National Politics Gains a Role

Timothy M. Kaine (D), at George Mason University, promotes himself as the governor's logical successor.
Timothy M. Kaine (D), at George Mason University, promotes himself as the governor's logical successor. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

People who study Virginia politics often recite this fact: In every governor's race since 1973, voters have selected the candidate from the opposite party of the one that controls the White House.

That means two Democrats for Ronald Reagan. Two Republicans for Bill Clinton. A Democrat for each Bush.

Politicians and strategists are not sure whether Virginians use their status as the first to go to the polls after a presidential election to send a message to the party in power, or whether the streak is a coincidence.

But the role that national politics plays in the gubernatorial race is gaining attention as President Bush's popularity fades in the state, as Republican fortunes falter in Washington and as the contest for the governor's mansion in Richmond grows tighter. Most politicians and consultants believe that the national political debate is only a tiny factor in voters' decisions about who should run their state, but that even minuscule shifts can affect a campaign that is seen as a toss-up.

"In the end, each campaign becomes a choice between two candidates, with two different philosophies," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who was part of the 24-year streak when he was elected governor in 1993 and who puts himself in the "coincidence" camp. "But everything has an impact on voters' minds."

Until now, Bush's drop in the polls has been about the only thing that has not gone according to script in the governor's race. Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, the former attorney general, characterizes himself as a perfect fit for the conservative-leaning state and tries to portray Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine as too liberal. His emotional ads on Kaine's opposition to the death penalty last week were the latest attempt to paint Kaine as out of step with the state.

Kaine has steadfastly promoted himself as the logical successor to popular outgoing Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and has branded Kilgore as eager to halt the "progress" that Virginians have respected the past four years, according to public opinion polls.

But few could have predicted the growing public dissatisfaction with the GOP leadership in Washington and Bush's declining popularity in a state that he won in November with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

The litany of reasons is familiar: rising gas and heating oil prices, the continuing war in Iraq, scandals involving some of the nation's most powerful Republicans and a federal government that did not look its best in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Although polls have shown Bush being more popular in Virginia than nationally, the numbers are far from his triumphant reelection 11 months ago.

At the time, Ken Hutcheson, who was Bush's campaign manager in Virginia and who now runs Kilgore's campaign, said Democrats should be crestfallen that Bush reclaimed Virginia after Warner's win in 2001.

"How on earth do they have the spirit and the heart to move forward? This was such a crushing defeat," Hutcheson said.

But much has changed. "I know that Northern Virginia is very anxious to send a message to the White House," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "I think Tim Kaine is going to be the beneficiary of that."

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