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Virginia Politics
With Larry J. Sabato
Monday, Oct. 8, 2001

With less than a month to go until Election Day, candidates Mark L. Earley (R) and Mark Warner (D) are campaigning in high gear, trying to persuade Virginians that they should hold the state's highest job. Who's better positioned? Who has a better strategy?

Political analyst Larry J. Sabato was scheduled to be the moderator for the final gubernatorial debate between Warner and Earley, but the debate was canceled because of U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan. The military actions have risen to the forefront in the national psyche, and have created a new and unnavigated terrain for political candidates and strategists. How have the attacks altered the campaign?

Sabato is the Director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and the author of over 20 books on various aspects of the political process. His most recent book is "OVERTIME! The Election 2000 Thriller," in which he delves into the intricacies of the 2000 national presidential election. A native of Virginia, Dr. Sabato is well versed in the history, tradition, and trends in Virginia politics, and he has authored numerous books on the subject.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Larry Sabato. Can you give us an overview of the Virginia gubernatorial race, and what we can expect to see in the next month?

Larry J. Sabato: In a nutshell, the Democratic nominee begins the final month as the favorite due to a desire for change on the part of a very substantial number of voters, especially in Northern Virginia. Mark Warner has been helped enormously by the budget impasse between the Republican Governor and the Republican Legislature, which has fueled the desire for change. However, Warner is not a heavy favorite, and almost no Democrat ever is in Virginia. The Old Dominion is a conservative and Republican leaning state. Moreover, Mark Earley also has substantial advantages. He showed some of those in the debate with Governor Wilder last week. He has ten years of experience in the state senate and nearly four years as the state Attorney General. He will also be strongly supported by President Bush, who is enormously popular now in Virginia, as well as Senator John Warner and all of the other major Republican figures in the state. The last month will be full of surprises, charges, and counter-charges. The question on my mind is: because of the war, how many people will even be paying attention?

Herndon, Va.: In my opinion, the terrorist attacks have hampered the Earley campaign's attempts to gain ground in the crucial last weeks, and the election is at this point a foregone conclusion unless Warner makes a huge mistake. Given the experience of this campaign, Warner's people are making no mistakes (in contrast to Earley). The only question left is what affect will the gubernatorial campaign have on down ticket races? Most observers would say that the Republicans will do very well in the General Assembly races, but there may be a few races that are exceptional in allowing Democratic candidates to ride Warner's campaign to victory. Do you agree that this is possible, and if so, which races appear to fall this way? Are Northern Virginia Republicans going to suffer at the polls given Earley's stance on the tax referendum, or will it make little difference? Thanks much.

Larry J. Sabato: It is true that Warner has made few mistakes. His initial refusal to reschedule the only truly statewide television debate today may be a serious error. The current alternative at a Norfolk TV station, so far, is highly inadequate since it will not be carried live and will only be aired at various times by a small number of stations throughout the state. We will have to see how this plays out. Perhaps Warner can be convinced to take the easier and political wise route of going ahead with the real televised debate. Otherwise, the down-ticket races are dependent in part on the performance of the gubernatorial candidate. Should either Warner or Earley win by a wide margin, then I would expect at least one ticket-mate be elected. However, it is not guaranteed that we will have a ticket election. The Lt. Governor candidate on the Republican side and the Attorney General candidate on the Democratic side are currently regarded as being the weakest candidates on their respective tickets. All that can change in the final month, though.

Alexandria: Why has Mark Earley not been able to take advantage of Virginia's normal Republican leanings?

Larry J. Sabato: Mark Warner has run an exceptionally good campaign, and in my thirty years of watching and writing about politics, is one of the best organized Democratic campaigns I have ever seen. Obviously, it is also exceptionally well funded. Mark Earley has had far less money and at least until recently, when some new troops were sent down from the Republican National Committee, his campaign has been unimpressive. Yet, some of it is not Earley's fault. The budget impasse in the spring was a disaster for Earley and that was a product of the conflict that exists between Governor Gilmore and the GOP Senate. Remember, though, that elections often close in the final two weeks. We'll see whether this one follows that historic pattern.

Alexandria, Va.: Mark Warner, who has impressed me in the past, really seemed off his game in that debate last week. Do you think his jittery performance had anything to do with the fact that former governor Wilder was the moderator? If I'm not mistaken, Warner used to work for Wilder. But Wilder seems to relish roughing up people he has been close with. Do you think Wilder will unload on Warner the way he did Beyer and Terry?

Larry J. Sabato: You are correct in many respects. Warner did not do at all well last Wednesday and Earley clearly won that debate. Partly, Earley won because he was particularly good that night. But also it was 2 to 1 on the stage and Wilder questioned Warner far more harshly than he did Earley. It is well known behind the scenes that Wilder has been unhappy with Warner. Wilder has said repeatedly that Warner is not very qualified to be Governor and that he, Wilder, has been responsible for most of Warner's qualifications (such as being Wilder's campaign chair in 1989 and an appointment to the State Transportation Board). So Wilder was anything but kind to Warner on Wednesday night. Nonetheless, that does not mean that Wilder will not endorse Warner in the end. As you know, the former Governor is very unpredictable, so we will all find out together.

Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Sabato: I've enjoyed your reasoned analysis of Virginia politics for some time now. Thanks for taking my question. I was AGHAST Saturday when I received in my mailbox a campaign flier from Mark Warner which was nothing less than a naked attempt to capitalize, for political purposes, on the Sept. 11 massacres. The flier had a photo of a firefighter and police officer on the front, with the tagline (I'm paraphrasing, because I crumpled it in anger), "Why do Virginia firefighters and police officers support Mark Warner? Because he supports them." I was thunderstruck at this sick, pathetic tactic, in which Warner tries to win votes by taking advantage of the heroic efforts of our cops and firefighters. 6,000 Americans dead -- including 189 in Virginia -- and Mark Warner seems to think, "How can I win votes from this?" Sickening. Have you seen this flier? What's your take?

Larry J. Sabato: I did see the flier and received one at my house. I understand your reaction, but I was not particularly offended by it. In fact, Mark Warner has been endorsed by the groups he cited. Also, it may be that after thirty years in the business, I am pretty jaded! The Republicans have sent out some highly negative direct mails during the campaign season, so neither pot can call the kettle black.

Richmond, VA: Don't you think more people will tend to support Mark Earley because of his strong stand on public safety now that the war on terrorism has begun?

Larry J. Sabato: One of Mark Earley's greatest advantages in the race is his experience in public office. The horrible events of September 11 have reemphasized that advantage. Mark Warner has countered by stressing his business experience, and it will be up to the voters to decide which set of experiences better fits current needs in Virginia.

Pittsburgh, PA: Larry, you mention that President Bush could really help Earley in the campaign. But with less than 30 days left, and with the president currently occupied with the War effort, wouldn't it seem crass and inappropriate if Bush went to a partisan campaign event, in the middle of a national crisis?

In summary, won't the Bush factor ultimately be a non-player for Earley due to present circumstances with the war on terrorism?

Larry J. Sabato: You make an excellent argument. I have wondered about this myself. In previous wars and crises, presidents have still campaigned for candidates, but their language has been more measured on the campaign trial. My guess is that Bush will cut a TV ad for Earley, and he may well make one or more appearances for his fellow Republican. I would expect his tone in the ad and appearances not to be harshly partisan. But again, we shall see.

Marshall, VA: Assuming (hopefully) that you get to moderate a statewide televised debate between Early and Warner, how do you think they will do? Asking for your prognostication here, since believe you will be more impartial than Wilder.

Larry J. Sabato: You are very kind, and I thank you. I can guarantee you that if the statewide TV debate happens, as it should, I will be relentlessly fair, tough, and professional, to the best of my ability. The organizers and I had carefully prepared a number of unique questions and situations that would have helped to show all Virginians the true character and abilities of both candidates. Each candidate would have been given-and will be given-equal opportunities to shine. I also consider it inappropriate to break the rules and to push a candidate beyond his answer. The answer is the answer is the answer, as Gertrude Stein might have said had she been in politics. It is up to the voters who are watching to decide whether a candidate has answered the question. So in conclusion, I honestly believe that this debate will allow both candidates to tell voters what really matters to him and to them. I hope to get the chance to get the chance to show you what we have planned. It would be a disgrace if no truly statewide TV debate were held during this entire election. That would be a first in modern times, and it would be a disgrace.

Alexandria 22305: For Warner to win, a lot of folks who voted for Bush and Allen last fall will have to pull the D lever. Who are these voters that are going to be switching their votes? What's their profile? Why would they jump from the R to the D column in this race, esp. when so many voted for VERY conservative Allen last year?

Larry J. Sabato: Good question. These voters are classic swing voters who are generally middle-aged, often baby-boomers, who live in the suburbs, are disproportionately white, female, and well educated with good incomes. By the way, a great number of them live in Northern Virginia, a region that now supplies at least a quarter of the statewide vote. These are individuals who look at the person more than the party or ideology. Naturally, like all voters, they cast a ballot based on their own interests, and they look for a candidate who will truly represent those interests with energy and conviction. The longer I have studied politics, the more I have realized that it is difficult to peg any voters, and campaigns that take groups of voters for granted are often unhappy on election day.

Tazewell, Virginia: Dr. Sabato:
Do you expect that the NRA will soon endorse Mark Earley or will they stay neutral? If they endorse Earley how much impact will it have on the race? Thank you..

Larry J. Sabato: After what Earley said at the Wilder debate, it would be a stunning setback to the Earley campaign if the NRA did not endorse him. The NRA is not sufficient to produce a Republican victory, but it is a necessary element of a GOP win. So watch this closely. If Earley loses the NRA endorsement he will have a tough October.

Chantilly, VA: Speaking of negative campaigning, has Mark Warner done any? I see the Republicans attack him on television and in some mailings I've received, but I haven't seen any attacks by Mark Warner.

Larry J. Sabato: Yes, he has. Some of his TV advertisements have been negative. Although his negatives are responding to Earley's negative ads. Overall, I would have to say that Warner has run the more positive campaign. That is frequently true for the front-runner. It is up to the challenger-the one trailing in the polls-to make up ground, frequently by attacking qualifications and platforms of the poll leader.

Franconia, VA: The Earley people insist they've got Warner on the run, and even the Washington Post acknowledged that the consensus view about the last debate is that Earley won. What is your assessment of whether Earley is truly tightening the race and is finally getting his act together in this campaign?

Larry J. Sabato: It is about one month before election day, and yes, it appears that Earley may be tightening the race a bit. But that is what I would expect for a Republican in Virginia. Republicans rarely lose, and when they do lose, it is not by mans percentage points. However, Earley still has a long way to go, and let's remember that whether you win by one vote or a million, you still have the governorship.

Burke, VA: I am a student at George Mason University. Do you think voters will have a backlash to Mark Warner's attempts to avoid appearing with Mark Earley? I have heard he won't even appear most places if Earley is going to be there, debate or not. Is this normal for a frontrunner for Governor?

Larry J. Sabato: Let's wait and see whether we can work out a real statewide TV debate. If Warner is seen as ducking or dodging the only real statewide TV debate, it will cause him problems. The other joint appearances really don't matter much, and the truth is that neither campaign wants to have to prepare for a debate every three or four days.

Dunn Loring, Va.: What do the polls and their trends tell you about the race between Warner and Earley? Will the issues of transportation and education overcome the misleading rhetoric about taxes?

Larry J. Sabato: Normally, I would be able to give you a pretty good answer by early October. But because of the tragic events of September 11, and now the military campaign in Afghanistan, I am genuinely unsure about the degree to which voters are focusing on this race at all, much less absorbing the conflicting agendas of the two candidates. You have asked a critical question, and it is both significant and unusual that those of us who follow campaigns for a living can't give you anything approaching a definitive answer just now.

Glen Allen VA: Professor I am a conservative Republican who is amazed at the emergence of the pro-Warner "moderate Republicans" in this campaign. There are still a lot of Republicans in this state who dislike the "born agains." This is rarely talked about but I think it is hurting Earley. I have been surprised that Earley has not done a better job of bringing in the Hager people.

Larry J. Sabato: You are correct, sir. For many years there has been the tension between the conservative Christian wing and the conservative economic wing of the state GOP. This is also true nationally. In some years the tensions are kept below the surface, but not in 2001. Quite a few of Lt. Governor Hager's key financial backers have defected to the Warner camp, and the Democrats have done an excellent job of capitalizing on the GOP internal dissention. If the race is close, these normally Republican voters could easily make the difference for Warner.

Alexandria, Va.: Are the media giving Earley too much of a pass on how he'll pay for his promises? I know this is a common complaint during campaign season, but the circumstances seem unique here -- Earley has proposed a $2 billion transportation plan and a plan to raise teacher's salaries to the national average. At the same time, he supports ending the car tax "on time and on target," he opposes a referendum on increasing the sales tax in Northern Virginia, and he says Virginia is heading into a period of slower growth (and thus lower tax collections). I can see why Warner doesn't press Earley on this issue because it returns the debate to taxes -- an issue Warner wants to avoid in light of his own fuzzy position on increasing the sales tax in Northern Virginia. But it seems the media has a responsibility to probe a little bit on Earley's numbers and there were no questions on that issue in the last debate, as I recall.

Larry J. Sabato: I agree with you, and this is yet another reason why we need a truly statewide TV debate. Quite frankly, neither candidate's numbers really add up. Earley has compounded this problem by supporting Governor Gilmore's plan to fully repeal the car tax next year. The reason I say this is also true for Warner is because Virginia's once healthy growth rate is plummeting in this current recession, and neither candidate is acknowledging reality for political reasons.

washingtonpost.com: How hard is it for political strategists to form campaign plans in a post-attack climate?

Larry J. Sabato: It is extraordinarily difficult. I have sympathy for both candidates and their staffs. We have never had a campaign in America quite like this, at least in modern history, and the best-made plans of political strategists are being ripped to bits almost on a daily basis. All the candidates can do is to go with the flow and hope that there will be a window of a couple of weeks to make their case when voters are listening.

Richmond, VA: A recent Post article stated that prominent Republicans and even the RNC might not fund Earley's campaign during closing days/weeks of the election, because they do not like how Earley is running his campaign. I would think that, in the end, the money will be there for Earley. Would the RNC/Gilmore/other Republicans really close their wallets to Earley?

washingtonpost.com: The article, "Earley's Stand Against Taxes Threatens Fragile GOP Base, explains that the RNC could cut off funding if Earley fails to quickly make gains.

Larry J. Sabato: My guess is that you have analyzed the situation correctly. I cannot imagine that Governor Gilmore could cut off the money to his own potential successor, since as the RNC chair, he will be held responsible if Earley loses-even if Gilmore is not fully responsible.

Reston, VA: It seems to me that for months now, the press, regardless of their own ideological leanings, have been saying that Earley is dead meat. They repeatedly cite Warner's money, organization and effective media advertising, coupled with Earley's apparent shortcomings in all of these areas and an inability to separate himself from Gilmore's handling of the budget impasse. Published polls seem to indicate that this race may already be over absent a defining issue. In your honest opinion, is the race over or does Earley still have a chance absent a divine miracle?

Larry J. Sabato: He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass. That applies to the press and political analysts and everyone else. A race is not over until 7pm on election day. More importantly, you can never write off a Republican candidate in conservative Virginia.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Sabato.

Larry J. Sabato: Thank you all very much for some excellent questions. I wish I had had time to answer them all. But I hope you will take a look at the Web site of my UVA Center for Governmental Studies at www.goodpolitics.org We have quite a number of articles and subjects that may interest you.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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