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Poll: Gilmore Surges to Lead Over Beyer

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By Spencer S. Hsu and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A01

Republican James S. Gilmore III has jumped to a significant lead over Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. for the first time in the Virginia governor's race, according to a new Washington Post poll that suggests Gilmore's plan to cut the state's tax on cars and trucks is attracting voters in high-tax areas like Northern Virginia.

A month after a Post poll indicated the race was deadlocked, Gilmore now leads Beyer 48 percent to 41 percent among likely voters a lead beyond the poll's margin of error of 3 percentage points. The Republican, a former state attorney general from suburban Richmond, also has virtually tied Beyer in Northern Virginia, where the Alexandria Democrat had hoped to build a large margin of victory to offset GOP support in more conservative areas downstate.

Besides erasing Beyer's home-field advantage in Washington's suburbs with a plan to nearly phase out the vehicle tax that costs residents hundreds of dollars a year, Gilmore has created doubts about the Democrat's credibility, the poll found.

And although Beyer has focused many of his efforts in the campaign's final weeks on attracting female voters by portraying Gilmore as an extremist on abortion, the survey found that a large percentage of voters agree with the Republican's more conservative stands on the issue.

The poll found that although most voters favor preserving legal access to abortion, three-fourths would support a law requiring minors to get a parent's permission before undergoing the procedure a restriction that Gilmore supports and Beyer opposes.

The survey also indicated that Gilmore's recent comment that Virginia should consider requiring married women to tell their husbands before having an abortion a remark that drew fire from Beyer and women's rights groups may not be hurting the Republican much. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would support a spousal notification law.

In the lieutenant governor's race, Democrat L.F. Payne Jr. leads Republican John H. Hager by 44 percent to 39 percent. Payne, a former representative from the Charlottesville area, has built his advantage on his rural Southside base, which Beyer lacks.

In the contest for attorney general, Republican Mark L. Earley, a state senator from Chesapeake, leads Arlington Democrat William D. Dolan III by 44 percent to 38 percent.

Beyer was not available yesterday to discuss the poll results, which followed a rough week in which his campaign failed to win the endorsement of former governor L. Douglas Wilder, a fellow Democrat who was the nation's first elected black governor. Beyer's campaign also reported being outdistanced by Gilmore in fund-raising last month, $1.5 million to $750,000. Beyer's campaign said yesterday, however, that it had made up the funding gap with a campaign loan and a donation from the Democratic Governors Association.

"We believe people are focusing in the final weeks on the fundamentals, and that's education," said spokeswoman Page Boinest, referring to Beyer's proposals to increase teacher pay and reduce class sizes. She added that a poll the Democratic campaign completed Tuesday showed Beyer "picking up speed" in Northern Virginia now that the sting of the Oct. 5 car-tax payments is beginning to fade among voters.

Gilmore, campaigning with actor Charlton Heston yesterday in five stops in the Shenandoah Valley, said he would take nothing for granted through Election Day and credited advertising about his tax-cut plan for his strong showing in the poll.

"Clearly the tax plans haven't changed; it's just a matter of getting the word out to people," Gilmore said. "It shows our issues are working."

The Post surveyed 1,005 likely voters from Sunday to Tuesday. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points, which is less than Gilmore's lead. Nevertheless, the race is still in some doubt. One in 10 voters are undecided, and one in four say they could change their minds in the 12 days until the Nov. 4 election.

Gilmore has based much of his campaign on his plan to phase out the tax on the first $20,000 of value on cars and trucks over five years. After criticizing Gilmore's plan as fiscally irresponsible, Beyer, the state's lieutenant governor, offered his own tax cut: a tax credit of as much as $250 to families making less than $75,000.

In the earlier Post poll, voters were split between the candidates' plans. But in a breakthrough for Gilmore, voters who want a tax break now say they favor his plan, 2 to 1.

"Jim Gilmore came out with it first and stuck with it. Don Beyer basically said it's not a good idea at first, then all of a sudden when he saw the polls, he came out with one," said Marsha S. Holloman, 48, a health care consultant from Herndon who was one of those interviewed for the poll.

Holloman, who said she paid $2,500 in annual car taxes last month, said that although the negative tone of the governor's race has at times turned her against both candidates, she will vote for Gilmore "only because of the car tax."

After being in a dead heat for nearly a year, Beyer is lagging because he has not locked up solid majorities among traditional Democratic voters, including women, African Americans and those in urban areas, the survey indicated.

Gilmore has battled Beyer to a standstill in the vote-rich eastern crescent of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore, where Democrats usually must win to counter GOP strength in the rural south and west.

Gilmore leads Beyer 47 percent to 45 percent in the Democrat's base of Northern Virginia, home to about one-third of the state's 3 million registered voters, the survey said. Although they are not a statistically significant lead, the numbers reflect that Beyer is struggling in a region that should be crucial to his hope of victory.

Among women, a voting bloc that was key in the election of Virginia's last Democratic governor, Wilder in 1989, Beyer has a significant lead in Northern Virginia. Overall, Beyer's lead among women was unchanged from a month ago, at 47 percent to 42 percent.

In Northern Virginia, Beyer leads among female voters by 55 percent to 39 percent. But outside the region, his lead is statistically insignificant.

At the same time, Gilmore has increased his lead among men, who traditionally are more attracted to pocketbook issues such as Gilmore's tax-cut plan. The Republican leads Beyer by 54 percent to 34 percent among men, up from a margin of only 5 percentage points last month.

Although the Beyer campaign has spent October pouring $400,000 a week into attack ads on the abortion issue including one spot in which a Republican woman says she was insulted by Gilmore's remarks on spousal notification the Post poll indicates that abortion may not be the strong issue for Beyer that it was for Wilder eight years ago.

"I really haven't paid that much attention" to the abortion issue, said poll respondent Inez Catherine Mahoney, 50, a Fairfax County resident who is a secretary at an engineering firm. Mahoney said that although she generally leans toward Democrats, she is considering voting Republican because "I like where Gilmore's going, especially with taxes. The [car] tax is ridiculous."

The poll also indicated that Gilmore's repeated efforts to cast Beyer as a flip-flopper on the car tax and a variety of other issues was registering with voters. Most voters identified Beyer as the candidate more likely to change his positions, and of those who did, nearly half said they were bothered by the idea that Beyer would change his positions to gain political advantage.

"I think Don Beyer changes his mind an awful lot, based on what he thinks people are responding to, rather than to what he believes," said respondent Leona Jan Best, 56, a retired Navy administrative worker from Springfield.

Beyer was supported by 66 percent of African American voters, well below the percentages achieved by Democrats in the past two Virginia governor's races. Gilmore had the support of 16 percent of blacks surveyed and led Beyer among whites by 55 percent to 36 percent.

The poll is likely to be seen as more bad news by supporters of Beyer, a millionaire car dealer. He deflated some Democrats earlier this week by saying that he would not put more of hisown money into his campaign.

"We bet the farm on the 1989 election," he said of his family's contributions to his first run for lieutenant governor. "And it's been eight wonderful years of public service and trying to make a difference in people's lives."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


To read the entire Post poll, click here.

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