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Car-Tax Cut Has Gilmore in Driver's Seat

By Mike Allen and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 28, 1997; Page A01

As James S. Gilmore III left a news conference at a Washington hotel yesterday, he was stopped by waitress Liz Asrat, of Arlington. "Are you the one-the car tax?" she asked shyly. "I'm so happy."

"I am! That's me!" exclaimed the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, in shirt-sleeves and a gleeful grin, delighted to know he had won over one more voter.

Asrat, 35, a Democrat, just paid the $600 personal property tax bill on her new burgundy Toyota Corolla. She isn't even sure Gilmore will make good on his promise to slash the dreaded tax ("I hope he will do it. I don't know," she said.) But she's voting for Gilmore anyway.

That pretty much sums up Gilmore's race with Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., the polls agree, with a week to go before the election. Even though Beyer has his own plan to lighten the burden of the tax, Gilmore seems to get all the credit, especially in Northern Virginia, where the tax runs into thousands of dollars a year for some voters.

A Washington Post poll last week found that largely because of the car-tax issue, Gilmore had pulled into a statistical tie with Beyer in Northern Virginia, 47 percent to 45 percent. Statewide, Gilmore had a 48 percent to 41 percent lead in a poll with an overall margin of error of 3 percentage points. A poll to be released today by Virginia Commonwealth University shows Gilmore leading Beyer by 45 percent to 37 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

For Gilmore, Northern Virginia suddenly looks like the difference between a win and a landslide, now that the car-tax issue has caught fire with commuters. If Beyer has any chance to beat Gilmore, he cannot lose in the place where he was supposed to be the favorite son. So both candidates spent most of the last three days in Northern Virginia, home to one-third of the state's voters.

On Saturday, Beyer shared an armory stage in Prince William County with a banjo string band and state Sen. Charles J. Colgan, of Manassas, who last winter introduced a bill to replace the car tax with a higher sales tax. (The plan was killed in committee after local governments protested it.)

Beyer campaigned at an Annandale Safeway, handing out literature and signs, while his wife, Megan, stumped in Old Town Alexandria as part of a state Democratic "Saturation Saturday" of leafletting in 80 cities and counties. Yesterday, Beyer appeared with Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley at Northern Virginia Community College.

Last night, Beyer was scheduled to attend a family-style "send-off" for the final week of the campaign with his parents and other relatives near the family's Volvo dealership in Falls Church.

On Monday, President Clinton is scheduled to appear at a lunchtime rally for Beyer in Alexandria, the president's second visit to the area in a month.

Despite the popularity of Gilmore's car-tax plan, Beyer's current strategy is to attack it as a fraud-"unsafe at any speed," he said recently-that would divert $400 million from Virginia colleges over six years.

At a news conference, Beyer aides decorated the podium with one of the Republican's "No Car Tax!" posters. Only a red ribbon reading "Gilmore's Gimmick" revealed which candidate was behind it.

"Jim Gilmore is like the guy running for high school president who promises to do away with homework," Beyer said. "Vote for the man, not the slogan."

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Gilmore distributed campaign literature in Spanish and Korean at a dinner organized by the Fairfax County Republican Outreach Committee, then spoke to a Fairfax banquet for Vietnamese Americans, where he was introduced by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).

Declaring himself an "honorary Northern Virginian," Gilmore shook hands yesterday afternoon at the Metro station on King Street in Alexandria, then boarded a Virginia Railway Express commuter train and took the 5:25 out to Manassas for a twilight rally.

Gilmore, seeming nearly giddy that the homestretch fight is spotlighting his signature issue, said yesterday that Beyer's attack on his car-tax plan is "the seventh position he's taken on taxes."

"Bring him on!" Gilmore declared as he paused for lunch. "Bring him on!"

Both candidates knew from the beginning that Northern Virginia would be important as the campaign wound down, but neither expected to be in the positions where they find themselves today. With their younger and less settled populations, behemoth Fairfax County and the booming outer counties of Prince William and Loudoun have become the political equivalent of singles bars-the target-rich land of what the campaigns call "persuadable voters."

"As Prince William goes, so goes Virginia," Beyer told Democrats at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Dale City early in the campaign. "This is the bellwether for political life in the late 20th century. You best represent the conflicts, the tension, the challenges, the opportunities for Virginia in the years to come."

Scott Keeter, the director of political polling at Virginia Commonwealth, said Gilmore's surprising strength in Northern Virginia stems largely from his focus on the car tax.

"Gilmore has his base of supporters humming. Beyer has not done that," said Keeter, who lives in Arlington County.

Keeter said that when Beyer unveiled a "tax cut lite," the Democrat gave up much of the support he might have expected from families and business leaders in Northern Virginia who are concerned about crowded roads and schools.

"If he had focused on his original themes," Keeter said, "he would have had a natural foil against the tax cut-maybe 'Don't strangle the schools.'"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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