By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 12, 2007
Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner holds a 30-point lead over his two potential Republican rivals in next year's U.S. Senate race, boosting Democrats' chances of expanding their congressional majority and highlighting the party's ascendancy in the state, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Warner, a Democrat who announced his candidacy last month, would get more than 60 percent of the vote in a hypothetical matchup against Rep. Thomas M. Davis III or former governor James S. Gilmore III, the two Republicans who have indicated they are considering running against him.
The Senate race will unfold against the backdrop of next year's presidential campaign, and the poll suggests that the state's 13 electoral votes could be up for grabs. By a margin of 11 percentage points, Virginians would prefer that the next president be a Democrat, indicating that even a reliably red state could flip in 2008.
The election is 13 months away, and other Senate candidates could emerge. But the new numbers could dampen the GOP's hopes for keeping the seat, held since 1979 by Sen. John W. Warner, who is retiring, along with three other Senate Republicans.
Virginia's GOP leaders will meet tomorrow to decide whether to select their nominee in a primary or convention. If a primary were held today, the poll shows, Gilmore would beat Davis by 19 percentage points.
Few outside Northern Virginia know Davis, a moderate seven-term congressman from Fairfax County who has raised more than $1 million for a possible Senate bid. The poll suggests that Gilmore, a conservative who dropped out of the presidential race this year, could be hampered in a general election against Warner, because people's perception of Gilmore has worsened since he left the governor's mansion in 2002.
Since the start of the decade, Virginia has elected two successive Democratic governors, and last year James Webb (D) unseated Republican George Allen in the U.S. Senate race.
Virginia voters have not supported a Democrat for president since 1964, but the poll shows that the party's prospects are boosted by President Bush's waning popularity. Bush's approval rating in Virginia is 35 percent, the poll shows. In a finding that mirrors national polls, negative feelings toward Bush are intense: 48 percent of Virginians "strongly disapprove" of his job performance, while only 16 percent "strongly approve."
In the campaign for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) outpace their rivals, according to the poll.
Clinton leads all other Democrats by a 2 to 1 margin or more, despite Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's early and vocal support for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). About half of Virginia Democrats would vote for Clinton, compared with one-quarter who say they support Obama and 11 percent who favor former senator John Edwards (N.C.). All other Democrats are in the single digits. Virginia's presidential primary is scheduled for Feb. 12.
Clinton's lead in Virginia is fueled by a prevailing sense that she is the strongest leader in the Democratic field (59 percent of Democrats polled said so) and that she is also the most electable (65 percent).
Clinton has wide leads over Obama among men and women and among whites. The race is more competitive among African Americans, with 49 percent preferring Clinton and 37 percent, Obama.
In the GOP contest, 34 percent support Giuliani and 20 percent back Sen. John McCain (Ariz). Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, polled at 19 percent. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is at 9 percent, and the rest of the field is in the low single digits.
Giuliani's star is hitched to a perception that he is the most electable GOP candidate and that he is the strongest leader in the field. About 3 in 10 white evangelical Protestants and weekly churchgoers back Giuliani. Many analysts consider his support for abortion and gay rights a liability among those key GOP primary voters.
In the Senate race, Warner leads Gilmore 61 percent to 31 percent, a 2 to 1 margin replicated in nearly every region of the state. Warner leads Davis 63 percent to 28 percent. In vote-rich Fairfax County, where Davis argues that he would have more appeal than some recent statewide GOP candidates, Warner is up by 24 percentage points over the congressman (57 percent to 33 percent).
Gilmore and Davis say they are confident that Warner's lead will significantly diminish as the race heats up.
Warner's large advantages are a testament to his broad popularity, voters' unfamiliarity with his likeliest opponents and the state's current Democratic trend.
"He seems to have it all together," said Diane Ward, 56, an independent from Roanoke. "There are times when I don't vote because there is no one I feel comfortable voting for, but I feel comfortable with him."
Warner has a 67 percent favorability rating, and his appeal crosses party lines.
More than 7 in 10 Democrats have a favorable impression of the former governor, as do 69 percent of independents and 61 percent of the state's Republicans. Even 4 in 10 self-described conservatives said they would vote for Warner, who was elected governor in 2001 as a pro-gun Democrat who appealed to voters in traditionally GOP counties.
"I pretty much always voted Republican, but I would vote for Mark Warner," said Jimmy Wetzel, 64, of Shenandoah. "I think on some things, Mark Warner is probably pretty conservative."
More than half of Virginians do not know enough about Davis to rate him favorably or unfavorably.
While 54 percent have no opinion of Davis, 28 percent view him favorably and 18 percent, unfavorably.
Gilmore is better known (27 percent express no opinion), but his ratings have eroded over the past decade. In 1997, on the eve of his election as governor, 60 percent viewed Gilmore favorably. Now, 40 percent have a favorable impression of him.
But in a possible primary matchup, Gilmore draws support from conservatives and white evangelicals, who are driving his lead of 48 percent to 29 percent over Davis among Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP.
"I don't trust Northern Virginia Republicans very much," said Janet Jefferson, 59, of Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley. "They tend to cave in too much to the liberals and make bargains that I don't like. . . . I believe Gilmore has good conservative values."
Gilmore says the poll proves he can beat Davis, who counters that he has "room to grow" while Gilmore doesn't.
In Northern Virginia, where Davis is better known, the congressman holds a lead over Gilmore among Republicans.
"He comes across as level-headed on a lot of things," John Polcari, 51, of Burke, said of Davis. "Gilmore, in his time as governor, he had his idea what was right and wrong and shoved them down throats, regardless of their effect."
Tomorrow's vote by the 84-member Republican State Central Committee on whether to hold a convention or primary in June could play a major role in whether Davis enters the Senate race.
At a convention, several thousand party activists would select the nominee. But any registered voter could participate in a primary, which would give Davis an opportunity to mobilize moderate Republicans and independents and get them to the polls.
Davis supporters argue that a primary would allow the eventual nominee to begin speaking to a statewide audience in the spring, at the same time Warner might begin a statewide advertising blitz.
Gilmore's backers counter that the estimated $4 million it takes to compete in a primary, compared with $1 million for a convention, could leave the eventual nominee broke by summer.
The poll suggests that the war in Iraq and the economy are the top concerns among voters at this early stage in the Senate race.
Nearly 6 in 10 in the poll say the war is not worth fighting, and a slim majority, 51 percent, wants U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq even if civil order is not restored there.
Many Virginia Republicans believe their party's prospects against Warner would greatly improve if Clinton was the presidential nominee. But there is little evidence in the poll that Clinton would be a significant drag on Warner.
The Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 4 through 8 among a random sample of 1,144 Virginia adults, including 993 registered voters. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.