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Va. Candidates Sharpen Campaign Jabs

By Spencer S. Hsu and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 2, 1997; Page D03

Virginia's campaign for governor became a slap fight yesterday, as Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. headed toward the race's final month by accusing Republican James S. Gilmore III of catering to religious extremists, and Gilmore swung back by calling Beyer a liberal who would be soft on criminals.

Beyer stepped to the plate during a rally at Arlington's Courthouse Plaza, accusing Gilmore of "genuflecting" to the GOP's most conservative elements, particularly religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

Beyer said Gilmore's stand against abortion and his support of taxpayer vouchers for private schools are not being touted by Republicans this fall because the GOP wants Gilmore to appear more moderate on those issues than he actually is.

"You have a four- or five-year, very clear pattern of fawning to that constituency," Beyer, Virginia's lieutenant governor, told a crowd of 80 teachers, sheriff's deputies, nurses and environmentalists. "Today, I ask Jim Gilmore and his most important supporter, Pat Robertson, to come out of the closet and fight this campaign in the open."

Gilmore tore into Beyer with a grainy, black-and-white television ad showing an empty playground, symbolizing what Republicans say is how Beyer's crime policies threaten the safety of children.

"What was Don Beyer thinking when he voted to release convicted criminals from prison early?" the narrator asks in the Gilmore ad, citing Beyer's vote in 1992 to give parole officials the option of releasing nonviolent offenders three months early to relieve prison crowding.

"He couldn't have believed that . . . would make Virginia a safer place for our children, could he?" the narrator asks.

The harsh jabs by each side elevated new, sensitive subjects in what has been a campaign focused primarily on the candidates' plans to cut taxes and improve education.

With polls showing the races virtually even, Beyer and Gilmore are beginning to concentrate more on tearing down the other guy and have directed their attacks at what they see as their opponents' potential weak spots.

Democrats have belittled Gilmore as "Johnny one-note," saying that his campaign's focus on phasing out the state's personal property tax on cars and trucks will not be enough to win over voters. Yesterday, they pointed to Gilmore's sharp assault on crime as proof that the GOP tax plan had run out of gas.

"This reminds me of a Willie Horton ad," said Beyer spokeswoman Page Boinest, citing the controversial 1988 ad by presidential candidate George Bush that accused Democrat Michael S. Dukakis of freeing a convicted killer who then raped a Maryland woman.

The Beyer campaign noted that the bill mentioned in Gilmore's ad, which never passed, applied only to nonviolent offenders and was made moot by Republican Gov. George Allen's push to abolish parole in 1994.

But Republicans said yesterday that it is Beyer's organization that has "run out of bullets" and is resorting to a campaign against religious groups. They said Democratic proposals on public education and the environment have fallen flat, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia.

"It's what we've always seen before, an effort to create fear," Gilmore said. "They tried this against me in 1993; they've tried it against Governor Allen; they tried it against Senator [John W.] Warner. It didn't work against them; it's not going to work against me."

Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) said Beyer needs to turn to social issues because the economy is strong, favoring Gilmore as the Republican successor to Allen.

"It's necessary for Don to show the differences on these social issues to give people a reason to get out and vote," Moran said. "This will help him, particularly with women and particularly in Northern Virginia."

In a new ad released by Beyer's campaign that echoes the candidate's assault on Gilmore yesterday, words float eerily on a black backdrop and a narrator says that Robertson has given Gilmore a total of $100,000 in his two state campaigns and will "hold his feet to the fire."

"Gilmore and Robertson want to take money out of Virginia's public schools and put it into private and religious schools," the ad states, posing a small girl between two large images of the two men. "The Gilmore-Robertson plan threatens public education."

Gilmore supports taxpayer-funded vouchers for parents to pay private tuitions to increase choice and competition among schools, a policy shared by religious conservatives. Robertson is the founder and chairman of the Christian Coalition, based in Chesapeake, Va.

Coalition spokesman Arne W. Owens said: "Attacking people of faith who are exercising their constitutional right to be involved in the political process would seem to us to be an act of desperation on the part of that campaign. The Christian Coalition is not going to endorse any candidate or any party."

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report. Hsu reported from Richmond; Allen from Arlington.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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