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GOP Uniting Behind McDonnell's Run for Governor

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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

RICHMOND, April 30 -- Top leaders of the Virginia Republican Party on Wednesday endorsed Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell's bid for governor in 2009, a major step toward unifying a party that has been deeply fractured in recent elections.

Even though the election is 15 months away, 50 elected and party officials signed the letter backing McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who plans to seek reelection.

McDonnell was endorsed by the state's eight Republican members of the U.S. House, the GOP leaders of the state House and Senate, the state party chairman and the chairmen of all 13 GOP district committees.

"A McDonnell-Bolling ticket will unite our Republican Party around its core conservative principles," the letter stated. "After two successive Democratic administrations, now is the time for our Republican Party to unite behind this strong, energetic ticket."

The endorsements are another sign that Republicans are hungry to reclaim the governor's mansion, which they lost in 2001.

Last month, Bolling surprised many party officials by announcing that he would not run for governor, essentially clearing the way for McDonnell to begin planning his strategy for the 2009 general election.

Democrats, meanwhile, are bracing for a potentially heated primary between Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath).

In an interview, McDonnell said he will have "an enormous strategic advantage" with the GOP establishment united behind his candidacy so early.

"It gives us time to take the measured steps necessary to unify the party and then reach out to independents and Democrats," McDonnell said. "We've got 15 months to do that, while the other side is duking it out."

In past election cycles this decade, it was the Democrats who were relatively unified while GOP candidates fought over taxes and social issues. The divisions within the GOP, including an independent bid for governor by then-Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (Winchester), helped Democrat Timothy M. Kaine win the 2005 gubernatorial election.

The letter endorsing McDonnell was signed by a cross section of leading state Republicans, including former state attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, who lost to Kaine in 2005, former governor James S. Gilmore III and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis. Gilmore and Davis were potential rivals for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John W. Warner (R) until Davis decided not to run this year. Warner has not taken a position on next year's gubernatorial race.

Despite the relative unity heading into the 2009 elections, the GOP faces significant obstacles and internal divisions.

The state Republican chairman, John H. Hager, is being challenged at the party convention this month by Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William), who says the party needs younger, more conservative leadership.

At the same time, Gilmore and Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) will battle it out at the GOP convention for the U.S. Senate nomination. Regardless of the convention's choice, most observers say former governor Mark R. Warner, the likely Democratic nominee, will be favored to win in November.

Some Democrats also think their party's presidential nominee will have a good chance to win the state's 13 electoral votes this fall.

McDonnell said he and Bolling will spend much of this year "building the party to make sure Virginia stays red in the presidential race."

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