New Face Winning Hearts in Va. GOP

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

Republicans across Virginia are rallying with surprising vigor behind the U.S. Senate campaign of state Del. Robert G. Marshall, a quirky Prince William County conservative who is challenging former governor James S. Gilmore III for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R).

Marshall's role as the lead challenger in the lawsuit that overturned several local taxes that were part of Virginia's landmark transportation package Friday has propelled him into the spotlight. But even before then, the 63-year-old policy consultant was quietly amassing support, from county committee chairmen in rural parts of the state to Northern Virginia GOP insiders.

He has done it by endearing the party faithful with his record on abortion, same-sex marriage and taxes, and by sidling up to the state GOP's anti-Gilmore crowd. Now Marshall has a fresh platform from which to reach those crowds, and he plans to take advantage of it, starting today with a fiery anti-tax speech he is scheduled to deliver on the floor of the House of Delegates.

"That money was illegally taken," Marshall said of the regional taxes imposed since January by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and thrown out Friday in a unanimous Supreme Court decision. "It's unconstitutional. To say we don't have to give it back is saying it's okay to steal."

It is difficult to measure how much support Marshall has among GOP activists who will participate in the party's May 31 convention. But whether Marshall might upset Gilmore to face Democratic former governor Mark R. Warner in the fall is less important, Republicans say, than what his nascent success says about the state of the Virginia GOP.

The party is dominated by conservatives who might be ill-suited to win general elections in a state that increasingly is choosing moderate Democrats for statewide office, some Republicans say. Until the GOP rallies around candidates who can match that kind of moderate appeal, they say, Republican fortunes are unlikely to change.

"The party still has a long way to go toward being unified -- unified without pushing some Republicans out," said Jane H. Woods, a Republican who was Mark Warner's secretary of health and human services. "Many of the committees are very unified, but it's at the expense of sort of turning away or discouraging anyone with divergent ideas."

The Virginia GOP has long been divided between moderates and conservatives. That division has come into sharper relief in recent years as the party's fortunes have turned with the elections of two consecutive Democratic governors and a Democratic U.S. senator. Instead of focusing on ideology, moderates say, the party must open its doors and address such practical issues as traffic, growth and school quality.

U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) believes in that view, and he had hoped to rally Virginia Republicans around it in a U.S. Senate bid he had been planning for years. But the Fairfax County congressman's ambitions were dashed when Gilmore persuaded the Republican State Central Committee to hold a convention instead of a primary to nominate its candidate. The decision favored Gilmore, whose more conservative views on social issues and taxes gave him the advantage over Davis with the party activists who attend conventions. As a result, Davis withdrew his name.

What Gilmore didn't anticipate is that he might have his own problems with Republican activists. As governor, Gilmore developed a reputation as a strong-willed and uncompromising tactician who brooked no dissent within his party.

"What Jim is finding out is that in the rural areas, where he was going to beat me, all of a sudden they're turning on him," Davis said. "He's not conservative enough, and Bob Marshall's hammering him on the issues. Plus he's not popular with the party activists, which is what you get when you have an autocrat."

In contrast, Marshall, despite what some regard as his extreme views, is well-liked by moderates and even Democrats, who admire his collegiality, intellect and principled stands, even when they're not popular. Marshall also charms his colleagues in a way that Gilmore does not. He snaps photographs and hands them out in the halls of the General Assembly, for instance -- a therapeutic exercise he began a few years ago after the death of his son in a car accident.

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