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Virginia Governor's Race A Dead Heat, Poll Suggests

By Spencer S. Hsu and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 21, 1997; Page A01

The race for Virginia governor is deadlocked, in part because a sizable number of voters who approve of popular Republican Gov. George Allen are backing Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. instead of the GOP's James S. Gilmore III, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Despite a robust economy that has most voters saying they're better off financially than they were four years ago, Gilmore has not rounded up the coalition of conservatives and moderates that gave Allen a landslide victory in 1993. About two-thirds of Virginians surveyed say they believe that Allen is doing a good job, but only about half of those favoring Allen also expressed support for Gilmore -- and 33 percent said they back Beyer.

The poll also shows that Beyer and Gilmore have accurately identified the top priorities of voters -- improving schools and holding down taxes among them -- but that most Virginians can't distinguish between the candidates' positions on those issues.

Some voters say Beyer hasn't given them enough reason to change course and put a Democrat in the governor's office. That could help explain why Beyer, the state's lieutenant governor and a Falls Church Volvo dealer, holds only a slim lead in Northern Virginia, a key area for him.

Overall, Beyer leads Gilmore, 44 percent to 43 percent, according to the Post survey of 808 registered voters. When only likely voters are counted, Gilmore is ahead by 1 percentage point. The poll, taken Sept. 12 to Sept. 16, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning that the race is a statistical tie.

In the contest for lieutenant governor, former Democratic U.S. representative L.F. Payne Jr. leads Republican John H. Hager, 41 percent to 37 percent.

State Sen. Mark L. Earley (R-Chesapeake) has a 42 percent to 37 percent edge over Democrat William D. Dolan III in the attorney general's race.

"In effect, the campaign has yet to start," and the election is up for grabs, said Robert S. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, commenting on the poll numbers in the governor's race. "These guys haven't made much of an impression yet."

Voters rate both Beyer and Gilmore highly on issue after issue, from defending the environment to keeping Virginia's economy strong. But many Virginians seem conflicted about what they want and which of the two moderate, experienced officeholders would deliver it.

Some of those surveyed say they are undecided because Beyer and Gilmore have adopted parts of each other's platforms.

"It's hard to figure out just where they stand," said one respondent, Paul E. MacDougal, 50, a retired firefighter from Chesapeake. "I think it's a crying shame. Don't be a fence-rider; if you don't like something, just say you don't like it. Nobody can please everybody."

Many voters also were reluctant to give Gilmore credit for Allen's accomplishments, which have included overhauling welfare, abolishing parole and presiding over a period of falling crime and unemployment. Besides plans to hire more teachers and phase out Virginia's unpopular property tax on cars and trucks, Gilmore has focused on casting himself as Allen's logical heir.

Despite being Allen's attorney general for 3 1/2 years, "Gilmore shouldn't get credit" for Allen's successes, said one of those polled, Roland L. Bryant, 43, a cigarette packer from suburban Richmond who is backing Beyer. "That's like saying the quarterback for the Washington Redskins won the game. Well, he didn't do it by himself; he had 10 other people helping him."

The poll suggests that despite the bustling economy and falling crime, some voters are restless for change. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they want the next governor to move in "a new direction," and 48 percent said he should stay the course. A majority faulted both candidates for lacking new ideas.

Voter restlessness could be good news for Beyer, a two-term lieutenant governor who has proposed his own tax credit based on the vehicle tax. But the Democrat's emphasis on improving public schools by hiring more teachers and paying them more has not excited some voting groups who traditionally have supported his party.

Among African American voters, traditionally the most reliable Democratic constituency, seven out of 10 back Beyer. But 28 percent said they doubt they will cast ballots on Election Day, compared with 12 percent of all whites, indicating that Beyer has work to do among black voters. Gilmore holds a big lead among white voters, 49 percent to 37 percent.

"I don't think either man would be bad for the state," said Robert S. Cornwell, 62, a retired Navy sailor and Norfolk shipyard rigger. "I just don't know what Beyer has done other than, you know, oppose some of Allen's legislation."

Voters overwhelmingly said public education, identified by both Beyer and Gilmore as their top priority, should be the biggest concern for the next governor, above the economy, taxes or crime.

But Virginians also like both candidates' tax cut plans and believe they are affordable. Sixty percent said they believed that Gilmore's plan, which could cost up to $3 billion, and Beyer's $1 billion plan could be afforded by squeezing government waste.

Seven of 10 respondents approved of Gilmore's plan to remove the tax from the first $20,000 of value on cars and trucks. Six of 10 like Beyer's smaller plan to give a tax credit to families with incomes of less than $75,000 and to individuals making less than $40,000.

Voters who liked both plans favored Beyer's by a slight margin. When asked to choose between more spending on schools or lower taxes, 59 percent preferred more spending.

In a sign that many voters' fears about crime -- a topic that dominated the 1993 campaign for governor -- have subsided, slightly more voters favored tax cuts than increased spending on law enforcement. Another perennial voter favorite, more spending on roads, has dropped off the radar screen, with voters preferring tax cuts by 2 to 1.

"It's taxes. We are tax-burdened Americans, and we're tax-burdened Virginians as well," said Johnny Brown, 42, a self-employed painter from rural Victoria, near the North Carolina border.

Gilmore's tax-cut plan, which Beyer ridiculed before introducing one of his own, is helping the Republican cut across demographic lines, appealing to some Democrats in Northern Virginia, where tax rates are highest, and others in low-income rural areas.

"I'm a Democrat," said Richard A. Steele, 51, a coal miner from Dickenson County in far Southwest Virginia. "But I'd like to have some kind of tax cut, and that's one reason I haven't made up my mind yet."

Regional differences also are sharp. Beyer shows some strength in Northern Virginia, while Gilmore, a former suburban Richmond prosecutor, leads in the state's interior. Beyer has a slight lead in Hampton Roads, the state's second-biggest urban area and a key battleground.

Beyer performs well among self-described political moderates, who make up four of every 10 voters in Virginia. Beyer leads Gilmore in this group by 48 percent to 36 percent.

The Post poll found that voters throughout the state generally approve of both men. The findings suggest that the electorate could be volatile and susceptible to wide swings if the campaign turns sharply negative.

Well over half of all voters say they believe that Gilmore and Beyer will hold down taxes and that they are pro-business and qualified to be governor. While Gilmore gets the edge on fiscal issues, Beyer leads narrowly on education and social issues.

Both men are rated highly on moral character and moderation, despite Gilmore's allegations that Beyer is an untrustworthy liberal who has flip-flopped on welfare, crime and taxes, and Beyer's accusations that Gilmore is an extreme conservative beholden to antiabortion, gun, tobacco and religious interest groups.

"They're not real sleazeballs or anything," said Peggy C. Anderson, 51, a technology recruiter from Falls Church. "I don't think they're blatantly dishonest."

The survey indicated that most voters aren't sure where the candidates stand on controversial issues.

Six in 10 voters say they oppose restricting abortion after three months of pregnancy. Only 9 percent knew that Gilmore supports such a restriction.

And although seven out of 10 voters opposed using racial preferences in college admissions, only 2 percent knew that Beyer supported such programs.

The poll results suggest that both candidates are likely to launch attack ads soon, analysts said. "The longer this election stays tight," said Thomas R. Morris, political scientist and president of Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va., "attacking appears to be the only way to break it open."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

To read the entire Post poll, click here.

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