Republicans Opt for Convention to Choose Nominee

Former governor James S. Gilmore III had argued for a party convention.
Former governor James S. Gilmore III had argued for a party convention. (Bill O'leary_twp - Twp)
By Tim Craig and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 14, 2007

RICHMOND, Oct. 13 -- Republican leaders decided Saturday to hold a convention to choose their nominee in next year's U.S. Senate race, delivering a setback to moderate Rep. Thomas M. Davis III and bolstering the chances of conservative former governor James S. Gilmore III.

The vote by the Republican State Central Committee means about 10,000 party activists will gather in June to decide who will face former governor Mark R. Warner (D) in the general election. Conventions that are limited to party activists generally favor conservative candidates, whereas moderates stand a better chance in open primaries that draw independents.

No Republicans have officially entered the race. But after the 47 to 37 vote in favor of a convention, Gilmore indicated that he is likely to run.

"They made a good decision, and that puts us in a position where at least we have the opportunity to compete with Mark Warner," said Gilmore, who briefly ran for the presidential nomination before dropping out of the race this year.

Some Republicans said privately that the decision to hold a convention could discourage Davis from running. He didn't attend the meeting yesterday, but advisers who did said Davis wouldn't be afraid to fight it out with Gilmore at a convention.

"I wouldn't underestimate Tom Davis's ability to win a convention," said John Hishta, a Davis adviser. "He has the ability to communicate with activists around the state and has a strong base among Republicans in Northern Virginia."

Davis and Gilmore plan to finalize their decisions after the Nov. 6 election.

Gilmore had argued in favor of a convention, in which county committees select delegates, because it would save the candidates money and help energize the GOP base for the fall campaign. Strategists say it costs candidates about $4 million to compete in a primary, compared with about $1 million to compete in a convention. Gilmore said he feared a primary could leave the eventual nominee broke by summer, when Warner is likely to begin advertising.

Davis, who has ties to donors nationwide, countered that a primary would have allowed the GOP to reach out to a broader audience.

"It's battle-testing our candidate for the type of campaign they have to make in a general election," said David Avella, a Davis supporter and member of the central committee.

After the vote, Gilmore said he is starting to focus on a possible general election campaign against Warner. Although his aborted presidential campaign ended in debt, Gilmore said he would be able to raise the millions of dollars he would need to compete with Warner, a wealthy businessman with a proven ability to raise money who served as governor from 2002 to 2006.

Gilmore also played down a Washington Post poll published Friday that showed him trailing Warner by 30 points.

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