Warner, Gilmore Mix It Up At Parade

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

BUENA VISTA, Va., Sept. 1 -- Virginia's top Senate candidates clashed verbally after marching in this city's annual Labor Day parade, kicking off a general election campaign that threatens to become overshadowed by the commonwealth's increasingly important role in the presidential election.

The parade, long considered a must for Virginia politicians, drew Democrat Mark R. Warner and his Republican opponent, James S. Gilmore III, two former governors, who traded barbed remarks after heading down Magnolia Avenue with other parade participants.

Gilmore said Warner is ducking a statewide televised debate and accused him of demeaning home-schoolers as well as gun-rights and antiabortion activists in a 1994 speech. Warner, who said he is still considering taking part in televised debates, shot back by accusing Gilmore of being "all about partisanship."

With the election two months away, Gilmore is stepping up his efforts to solidify his conservative base while trying to make the argument that Warner has grown too arrogant about his chances of success in November.

Gilmore seized on Warner's decision not to attend a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate that would have been aired statewide. "He doesn't want his positions known to the people of Virginia," Gilmore said. "He covers up his positions on the issues because if he runs on his positions, he loses. In fact, he is not electable."

But at Monday's parade, voters seemed more interested in the presidential race between Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee. "The presidential race has so much riding on it, and it is going to be so tight. I don't think anybody is focusing on the Senate race, " said Willard Robinson, 45, a Republican from Buena Vista.

Monday's event attracted people such as Bea Johnson, who said she had never before attended the city's Labor Day parade even though she lives in the Shenandoah Valley city of Lexington, just eight miles away.

"I just wanted to be here to do my little part," said Johnson, who carried a "Vote Obama 08" sign. "He is bringing me out this year, " she said of Obama.

In a sign of the importance of Virginia's 13 electoral votes, both the McCain and Obama campaigns paid attention to the Buena Vista parade this year, which consisted of politicians, a half-dozen Shriners, a truck carrying Miss Rockbridge County, a Boy Scout troop, cheerleaders and about a dozen firetrucks and ambulances.

Although many voters appeared to have their minds made up about the Senate race, the presidential race remains fluid in this part of Virginia.

"I'm really undecided at this point," said Rebecca Gamper, 44. "All this attention on Virginia. They are making it a hard decision this year on who to vote for."

Buena Vista, a mill town with a population 6,000, is the kind of place where Obama needs to do well if he is to prevent McCain from racking up crushing margins in GOP-leaning western Virginia. Rural areas of Rockbridge and neighboring counties vote heavily Republican, but Buena Vista is home to a number of aging, politically active Democrats.

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