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Virginia Politics
With Larry J. Sabato
Thursday, Oct. 11

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 the moderator for the final gubernatorial debate between Warner and Earley, where the candidates clashed on the issue of taxes to ease Northern Virginia's traffic woes.[Read the story.]

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.


To read the most recent responses, click "Get New Responses"
or select "Automatically Update Page."

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us for a second time this week, Larry Sabato. The final debate between Mark Warner and Mark Earley was all about taxes. Who handled the issue better?

Larry J. Sabato: The tax issue basically belongs to Earley. This is a traditional Republican issue that stirs up the base and can also deliver many independent votes. Earley was relentless in pushing the idea that Warner would raise taxes by $900 million. However, Warner gave a much better defense of his plan than he did last week in the Wilder debate. I am still not sure why Warner did so poorly last week. Certainly, Doug Wilder pummeled Warner while leaving Earley unscathed. But Warner also clearly had an off night. So if last week was Warner's worst debate performance, last night was his best. Essentially, I saw the debate as a genuine draw, with both candidates making intelligent, strong cases for themselves and their candidacies.

Forestville, MD: It's obvious that Earley sees his only chance at winning is to continually attack Warner for supporting allowing Northern Virginia to vote for a tax referendum by saying he's 'raising taxes' for all Virginians.

What do you think are his chances to make this a successful? I think he's far too one-dimensional in his approach for it to work. Virginians want to hear what he plans to do.

Larry J. Sabato: I also believe the tax issue is insufficient to elect Earley, but it gets him to the upper 40s. What could push him over the top? Perhaps a concerted effort by key Republicans such as Bush, Cheney, John Warner, George Allen, and Jim Gilmore. They all have their reasons to try to prevent Warner from winning - and the reasons differ from person to person. At the same time, Warner has passed a tough hurdle - the last TV debate. His overwhelming financial edge may help to keep him over 50 through Nov. 6. I believe it is going to be a close, fascinating race in the last few weeks.

Alexandria, VA: Mr. Sabato, I tried to get this question answered during your last chat and submitted it as a debate question as well.

Can you please tell us what affect the black vote will have on this election and what affect Doug Wilder may have on the black vote if he does not endorse Mark Warner for Governor before election day? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Wilder endorsed Warner this morning. (Read the article.)

Larry J. Sabato: Sorry I missed your question earlier. We heard last night in Roanoke that Doug Wilder would endorse Warner today, and he has done so. That may have been the backstop in case Warner did poorly in a second consecutive debate, and this may explain the curious timing of the endorsement. Of course, after the difficulties that Wilder gave Warner last week, this may be a make-up endorsement! Still it is a plus for Warner, no question about it. If Wilder had stayed neutral, or in the very unlikely possibility that he had endorsed Earley, Warner would have been severely damaged. Frankly, while everyone is fascinated with the Wilder persona and his unusual position in the state's politics, I question how many additional votes he brings to Warner. The Democrat was already receiving well over 90% of the African American vote before this. But maybe Wilder will help to increase black turnout.

Roanoke, VA: Dr. Sabato,

I am planning to vote for Mark Warner, but I will do so with a lack of enthusiasm. I am increasingly afraid he may not win the election. I sense that there is a strong hunger in Virginia for bold, transformational leadership. We need to put everything on the table: the tax structure, relations between the state and local governments, funding higher education, protecting the environment, etc. To put it bluntly, we must prepare Virginia to compete in the 21st Century economy. Sadly, Warner appears to be too cautious and hopes to coast in as a vanilla moderate. Given the fresh memories of the Virginia GOP's Keystone Kops budget debacle, there will probably never be a better chance for a bold alternative to the status quo. Do you agree that Warner is playing it too safe and it could cost him?

Larry J. Sabato: You make a good case for your point of view. Warner is certainly playing it very, very safe. If Democrats had not lost everything - absolutely everything - over the last decade, I doubt that Democrats, especially in Northern Virginia, would let Warner get away with a stand-pat platform. But Democrats are desperate for a victory, and so, like you, they will pull down the Warner lever with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Yes, we can criticize Warner for his play-it-safe strategy, but I have also followed and written about Virginia politics for over thirty years, and I would simply observe that more liberal change-agents usually lose in Virginia. If Warner is elected, he may run a bolder governorship than his campaign has so far suggested.

Arlington: This governor's race hasn't seemed to inspire people much, even before 9/11. What kind of turnout do you think we'll see? Who does a low or high turnout help more?

Larry J. Sabato: Most of us hope that the tragedy of Sept. 11 will encourage a high turnout, and that is a possibility. What I fear is that international events will continue to overshadow the campaign to the degree that it becomes a footnote. If so, turnout could be low. But on turnout, I have always adhered to two principles. First, voting is like inertia - objects in motion tend to remain in motion, and objects at rest tend to remain at rest. Second, the level of turnout usually does not intrinsically favor the Dem. or the Rep. It is more a question of which group in the electorate are turned on or turned off. That is usually determined in the final week or even days in the campaign.

Vienna, Va.: TAXES. Is that all these candidates care about? It's an insult to voters that no other issues are being discussed. What do the VOTERS care about?

Larry J. Sabato: The voters care about education, transportation, many social issues, etc. I am pleased to report that we asked new questions about every single one of these issues last night at the debate. But we cannot make the candidates answer the questions. I hope you will watch a replay of the debate on C-SPAN to see what I mean and why we all are frustrated.

Arlington, VA: Do you think a strong showing by Jerry Kilgore for AG, can save the rest of the GOP ticket statewide as happened in 1997 when Earley carried the GOP ticket?

Larry J. Sabato: No. Earley had nothing to do with Gilmore winning. NO CAR TAX created the GOP tide that carried the ticket. Yes, Earley had a higher percentage than did Gilmore in '97, but because of voter drop-off, Earley received fewer votes than Gilmore. Coattails proceeds from top to bottom of the ticket, not in reverse. I do agree with you that Kilgore has become the favorite and the strongest Republican on the GOP ticket. However, if Warner somehow manages a landslide win, he could carry in his whole ticket. Take a look back at the case of 1981. I will not bore you with the details right here.

Burke, VA: I see the race in these last few weeks boiling down to effort--whoever works hardest will win the race. Appearances, rallies, ads, speeches, and endorsements here and there will eventually add up to make the winner. I don't foresee any big revelations that will change the nature of either of the campaigns.

That being said, what issues do you think both candidates should emphasize in the final weeks of the campaign, and do you think they're doing a good job staying on message?

Larry J. Sabato: If there is one thing the candidates are doing well, it is staying on message. See last night's debate for proof. You may be right in your overall observations, but politics is full of surprises. There may well be new revelations or key endorsements that change the calculus in the final months. One example: In my new book OVERTIME! The Election 2000 Thriller (Longman), Tim Burger from the New York Daily News and I both discuss the tremendous impact that the Bush DUI revelation had just four days before the election. The mini-scandal probably cost Bush the popular vote, so you never know...

Richmond, VA: As you have noted, last night's debate offered little in the way of a compelling reason to vote for either candidate. What are the chances that a trickle of voters might actually consider the Libertarian candidate, and if so what impact could this have on the margin of victory for the successful candidate form the major parties?

washingtonpost.com: The Libertarian candidate, Bill Redpath, will be Live Online tomorrow at 11 a.m. EDT.

Larry J. Sabato: Anything is possible. Generally, Libertarians receive just a couple of percent of the vote in Virginia. But even a couple of percent could make all the difference in a close race. Yet, where do Libertarian votes come from? Democrats are attracted to them because of their liberal positions on social issues, Republicans because of their small government philosophy.

Arlington, VA: Were you surprised by the answer Earley gave to the last question of the debate--when he was asked to say something nice about his opponent?


Larry J. Sabato: Yes, I think that was a mistake. Not a huge mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. I ask this question frequently in debates. I am always amazed when candidates cannot do the obvious thing and pretend to see some good in their opponent. Even though they don't believe there is much good in their opponent, the public expects them to say something nice.

Stuarts Draft, VA: What impact, if any, is there on the Governor's race now that former Governor Doug Wilder has endorsed Mark Warner?

Larry J. Sabato: I answered this question earlier, but I will add this. How the press plays this endorsement matters. If they play it big, then it will help Warner more. Some journalists are tired of Wilder's showmanship, however, and they may not give all that much attention to what ought to be a given anyway. A former Democratic governor endorses his own former campaign manager who is the Democratic nominee. Sounds like dog bites man to me.

Jacksonville, NC: Prof. Sabato,

What happens to the Democrats if the entire ticket goes down? From what I understand, the Democrats are projected to lose seats in the General Assembly. Will they become a dormant, almost regional party like the Republicans were for years when the GOP's only strong area was the Ninth District?

Larry J. Sabato: Whatever happens at the top of the ticket, redistricting has given the Republicans an excellent chance to add seats to their current 53 in the House of Delegates - maybe as many as 6 to 8. You paint a dark picture for the Democrats and I don't think that I agree, except for their future in the legislature, but ask me again after November 6th.

Falls Church, VA: Two weeks ago Earley said he "wouldn't shoot the bear" referring to a referendum veto--then he said he would shoot the bear dead and now I understand Earley says he might let the referendum "bear" live another year. Doesn't Earley realize if he can't make up his mind on a simple issue, people won't trust him to be governor?


Larry J. Sabato: You are correct that Mark Earley has had several different positions on this issue. Yes, they are nuanced differences in positions, but nuances matter in politics. Warner honed in on these flip-flops last night. Indeed, his supporters outside the TV station were singing the theme song to the old TV show, "Flipper." How much does this matter to voters? Partisans care, but most independents see it as non-news because politicians, in their view, change positions with the wind.

Washington, DC: Mr. Sabato, I haven't really heard much talk at all about higher education in this campaign. I was reading the candidates' web pages with the usual grain of salt but still didn't see a whole lot. Do we stand much prospect in either case of seeing improved funding for the schools, especially the University? P.S. Politics Is A Good Thing!

Larry J. Sabato: Wa-Hoo-Wa. You've touched a nerve with me, obviously. I was disappointed last night that so little was said about higher education. Virginia is blessed with one of the best systems of higher education in the country, but we cannot maintain our standings without dedicated and attention by each and every governor. Both candidates say it is a priority, but I have gotten the sense that it is way down the list for both of them. At least both candidates have strongly suggested that a bond issue for capital outlay projects might be in order very soon. We shall see. When I go through a campaign, I keep humming that old Broadway song, "Promises, Promises."

Tazewell, Virginia: Dr. Sabato, As always you did a wonderful job as last night's debate moderator. Everyone is talking about whether the tax issue will bring a victory for Earley, but my question is will the budget impasse bring a victory for Warner? Thank you.

Larry J. Sabato: Thank you so much, and of course, my mother and her family live in Tazewell County. Just as taxes is the Earley trump card, so too is the budget impasse Warner's trump card. Frankly, without that spring budget disaster, Earley would have been the clear favorite in this election. If he loses, the Republicans will have no one to blame but themselves.

Arlington, VA: Can we expect any editorial surprises this year?

Larry J. Sabato: Let's be honest. Everyone knows that the Democrat will receive the endorsement of the Washington Post, the Virginian Pilot, the Roanoke Times, the Daily Press, and a number of other papers I can name. Mark Earley will receive the endorsement of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (I think), the Washington Times, and a number of smaller, regional, conservative newspapers. If there are any surprises, they will come in the races for lt. governor and attorney general.

As always, these were great questions, and I wish I could have answered them all. But I actually have to go teach a class; reasonably, the University of Virginia expects me to fulfill my obligations tuition-paying students! I hope that all you political junkies will take a look at the www.goodpolitics.org, the Web site of my UVA Center for Governmental Studies. Thanks and good afternoon.

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