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Beyer, Gilmore Push Tax Battle to Final Day

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 1997; Page A01

A Virginia governor's race dominated by Republican James S. Gilmore III's promise to slash the state's dreaded annual car tax goes before voters today, after a final day of campaign scenes that underscored how the contest has become a nationally watched referendum on the power of tax-cut fever.

At Alexandria's brick-and-gabled City Hall, President Clinton led a rally for Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., pleading with Virginians to vote for their children instead of their pocketbooks. With a "Save Our Schools" banner fluttering nearby,
Clinton and Beyer/AP President Clinton, left, appears at an Alexandria rally to support Democrat Donald Beyer, right. (AP)
Clinton acknowledged that Gilmore's plan was a "brilliant" political ploy, then echoed Beyer's arguments that such a tax cut would blow a billion-dollar hole in the state's education budget and lead to increases in other tax rates.

Clinton asked how Virginians could "knowingly damage the education of our children and the future of your state."

Meanwhile, a gleeful Gilmore, whom recent polls have shown with a 7- to 12-point lead, was riding around the state in a bus plastered with 40 of his "No Car Tax!" bumper stickers. From the Vienna Metro station to a Civil War cannon foundry in Richmond, supporters called him "governor" and greeted him with "congratulations!"

The can't-wait-till-Election-Day confidence that oozed from Gilmore's campaign during the last two weeks erupted last night at a final rally at the old Tredegar Iron Works building in Richmond, where Gilmore urged a cheering crowd to help elect other Republicans and fired back at Clinton and Beyer.

"Today in Alexandria, Don Beyer and Bill Clinton said the people of Virginia are selfish for wanting this tax cut," Gilmore said. "Well, Bill Clinton and Don Beyer . . . just don't get it. It is not selfish for Virginians to have their own money to improve the lives of their own children."

Buoyed by a strong economy, a generally satisfied electorate and a popular Republican governor, Gilmore has jumped on the tax — which costs most Virginia households hundreds of dollars annually — to stir passion for his campaign.

Recent polls indicate that the tax-cut plan could particularly hurt Beyer in the Alexandria Democrat's support base of Northern Virginia, where tax rates are relatively high. Pollsters say it has resonated so effectively with Virginia voters that Republicans have a chance to sweep Virginia's three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — for the first time.

The GOP even has an outside chance of taking control of the House of Delegates, where the party once was banished to one corner of the chamber, if Gilmore racks up the wide margins that were indicated in polls published over the weekend.

Del Ali, of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, said his polls have found that even some liberals plan to vote for Gilmore because of the car tax.

"Beyer and Gilmore are both likable people," Ali said. "The state is doing well, and this is the only issue people care about. It's almost made voters delusional."

Cities and counties in the Old Dominion collect a personal property tax each year, based on a vehicle's value. Gilmore's plan would eventually abolish the tax on the first $20,000 of a vehicle's value.

Beyer, who wanted to focus his campaign on education but found himself essentially running against Gilmore's "No Car Tax!" yard signs, finally offered his own modest state income tax credit to help people pay their personal property tax. But that reversal demoralized many of his supporters, and Beyer didn't even mention it in yesterday's speech.

Gilmore would have to win approval of his plan from the legislature and so is hoping for GOP gains in the House. The House Democratic leader, Del. C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke), said Gilmore's plan would pass "over my dead body" if Democrats kept control of the legislature.

Democrats are encouraging voters to take a second look at the plan, posting placards saying "It's a Fraud!" in front of Gilmore's car-tax signs along Little River Turnpike and elsewhere in Fairfax County.

Yesterday, Clinton, using no notes as he gave what sounded more like a sermon than a speech, called the election a test of character and said that "the state of our founding fathers" is being sold a bill of goods on the car-tax issue.

"Let us give the opposition credit," Clinton said as the crowd in Old Town Alexandria's Market Square chuckled. "Nobody likes to fool with licensing their cars and taxing their cars. It is a pain. This is a brilliant ploy, because there is hardly anything in life more irritating."

But, Clinton said, "this is going to be like one of those meals you order and you're hungry 30 minutes later."

Beyer led the crowd in a refrain of "No more Gilmore gimmicks!" and deployed the most graphic imagery he has ever used on the stump.

"What parent would not put himself between danger and his child — would not put himself in front of the speeding bus?" Beyer said. "Now we fight a slogan — a gimmick — that lets adults dive for cover while our children get run over."

Beyer, acknowledging the complaints of some Democrats who say he should not have waited until he began to slip in the polls before attacking Gilmore's plan, said that "in many ways, it was the shift in polls that allowed us to break through. That's when everyone began to wake up that something's really at stake here."

Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, of Newport News, was one of many Democratic officials who said Beyer's argument about the tax-cut plan's impact was powerful but perhaps too late.

"That speech outlined what the campaign should have been," Scott said yesterday.

Strategists in both parties said Beyer must run strongly in Washington's suburbs, home to nearly one-third of the state's voters, if he is to come from behind in a race in which he admits he "made a lot of mistakes."

Beyer, 47, seemed to be in a strong position when the race started, and the two men were tied in polls for most of the year. As the state's lieutenant governor, Beyer had eight years in statewide office compared with fewer than four for Gilmore, 48, a former state attorney general.

The Democrat's urbane charm made him more of a crowd-pleaser than was the methodical Republican. Beyer lives in Old Town Alexandria and owns two car dealerships in Northern Virginia, giving him a head start in a region that was alien territory for Gilmore, who has lived all his life in suburban Richmond.

But those advantages seemed to evaporate as Gilmore tapped into public rage over the car tax.

Feeling confident about the governor's race, national GOP groups poured $1 million into Virginia this month in hope of electing John H. Hager as lieutenant governor and state Sen. Mark L. Earley, of Chesapeake, as attorney general. Many Republicans saw Virginia as a proving ground for tax-cut proposals in next year's congressional elections.

Hager, a former tobacco executive, faces Democrat L.F. Payne Jr., a former representative. Earley, a legislator who has been embraced by religious conservatives, faces Arlington Democrat William D. Dolan III.

Two seats in Fairfax County are among the six close races that will determine whether Republicans pick up the four seats they need for a majority in the House of Delegates, which in the last session had 53 Democrats, 46 Republicans and an Independent.

Republicans say one of their two best shots is in the Vienna area. Del. George E. Lovelace (D), is battling Republican Jeannemarie A. Devolites, who has campaigned constantly with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R), a moderate who has a large following as former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

For results in the Virginia governor's race, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and enter category 1997 after the polls close tonight.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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