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Divergent Personalities on Display

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 1997; Page D01

MADISON, Va.A bluegrass band is twanging, and Virginia's Republican candidate for governor, James S. Gilmore III, is working the crowd at a gun shop during the Taste of the Mountains festival. A well-wisher here in the Blue Ridge asks for a red, white and blue "Gilmore" sticker like the one the candidate sports on his lapel.

Surprised by the request, Gilmore wheels around, can't spot any of his handlers and momentarily freezes. "Where's my staff?" he barks. His wife, Roxane, peels off her own sticker and gives it to the guy -- a solution her husband apparently hadn't thought of.

Gilmore is still working on warmth and spontaneity -- one of the reasons, his advisers say, that he has agreed to only two debates before the Nov. 4 election. His opponent wants nine.

By contrast, Democratic nominee Donald S. Beyer Jr. is Mr. Quips. Beyer, the state's two-term lieutenant governor, says he can discover a mutual friend with anyone in Virginia in five minutes, and he has spent the last eight years riding around collecting -- and repeating -- tales about hamlets with names such as Hustle, Tightsqueeze and Dante.

Don Beyer gets buttonholed.
Candidate Donald S. Beyer Jr. talks with a supporter in Chester.
By Khue Bui/TWP
"One of the nice things about being lieutenant governor is that people already call you 'Governor,' " Beyer says.

But the jovial Beyer's occasional digressions into Eastern philosophy turn off some voters, and some fellow Democrats fear that Beyer can promote a spacey, goofy image -- what one activist called "the Governor Moonbeam syndrome."

On the campaign trail, Beyer walks into situations that the more cautious Gilmore never would. Traipsing down a parade route in Buena Vista on Labor Day, Beyer passed a stocky brick building and called out, "That the jail?"

"The American Legion," replied Mary Shewey, the city's registrar of voters, who was standing on the front steps. Beyer, momentarily mortified, quickly moved on to shake hands with his next new best friend.

In what polls say is a close race for governor, the candidates' personalities and campaign styles present some of the starkest distinctions.

On paper, it looks like a me-too campaign: Both Beyer and Gilmore are 47-year-old fiscal conservatives. Both are more moderate than their national parties. They're both longtime climbers with in their parties who won statewide office in 1993 (Beyer for the second time, Gilmore for the first). And while their proposals are slightly different, each says education is his top priority and promises voters relief from Virginia's hated personal property tax on cars and trucks.

But in person, they hardly could come across more differently.

Gilmore, a former state attorney general who was a suburban Richmond commonwealth's attorney, is bent on proving his case that he would be a great governor.

Beyer, owner of a Volvo dealership in Falls Church and a Land Rover outlet in Alexandria, believes that the soft sell can be best.

Gilmore rarely strays from his script. After he was asked recently whether he favors affirmative action in college admissions, his campaign spent most of the day crafting a two-page statement that, without saying yes or no, emphasized Gilmore's support for "colorblind admissions."

When asked to clarify, Gilmore said brusquely, "Go take a look at the statement."

Beyer, on the other hand, is a font of opinions. One recent week had him expounding on the environment, veterans affairs, health care, women's issues, land development and job creation. When asked about affirmative action in admissions, Beyer unabashedly said he favors it.

Gilmore's campaign acknowledges that Beyer is better at charming crowds, but his supporters believe that come November, most Virginians will favor the Republican's proposals for providing additional teachers and a tax cut.

"I've got personality, too," Gilmore said one day as he was being driven down Interstate 64 in his campaign's forest-green Ford minivan. "The component we've got that he doesn't have is strength on the issues. I think that's what people care about."

His wife, a classics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, interjected, "This isn't a high school popularity contest."

Asked to describe Beyer, Gilmore then quipped: "Stiff! Humorless! No charisma!"

Beyer, asked the same question about Gilmore, strained to be nice.

"I think he's hard-working," Beyer said. "I think he's very, very focused. He's very ambitious. Seems to me that he's pretty humorless. Seems to me that he wants desperately to win. I think he loves his wife and his kids. I think he's, you know, a good American. I don't think he'd ever be a close friend."

Gilmore is also shrewd. He's trying to use Beyer's reputation as a crowd-pleaser against him, accusing the Democrat of saying anything to make voters happy. That plays to a belief that many voters already have about politicians, and Beyer has made several moves that Republicans say can be cast as flip-flops, reverses and revisions.

"Gilmore is hoping credibility trumps likability," said Robert D. Holsworth, chairman of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Holsworth, who has studied each man's record in statewide office, saw each up close when they appeared separately before one of his classes.

"Gilmore doesn't ruminate or talk about his philosophical approach to government," Holsworth said. "He's in a campaign. He's clearly focused on the task at hand. And he is rarely going to deviate from the message that he's developed.

"Don Beyer can walk into a room, and he's self-deprecatory. He remembers first names. He'll agree with the premise of most questions he gets asked. But his glibness has gotten him in trouble, like calling for tax cuts but praising governors who have had the courage to raise taxes."

Beyer, when questioned about adjustments in his positions that have led Republicans to dub him "the Great Pretender," points to the big picture. "The political leaders that we most remember -- the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Churchills, the Gandhis -- are not remembered for their policies, their planks, their platforms," Beyer said. "They're remembered because of the inspiration they gave."

Gilmore's advisers have told him that he needs to be more approachable, and he's attacking that chore earnestly, if not always successfully.

For an interview on a blazing hot afternoon a few months ago, Gilmore showed up dressed not in his usual suit and tie, but casually, in a long-sleeved sweater.

At a NASCAR stock car race in Richmond this month, Gilmore autographed fans' seat cushions as though he were a rock star.

As Gilmore climbed the steps to his seat in the bleachers and the crowd of 100,000 erupted with cheers for top-qualifier Bill Elliott, the candidate joked, "See -- they love me!"

Even as Gilmore gets more comfortable as a candidate, some Republicans fret that voters will continue to see him as lacking in personality compared with Virginia's folksy Republican governor, George Allen.

At a recent fund-raising dinner at Breezy Hill Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, the evening was humid, and the outdoor feast was designed to be casual. So the host, Zane D. Showker, encouraged the dignitaries to take off their ties, hoping other guests would follow suit.

The grateful governor quickly yanked off his tie and unbuttoned his top two shirt buttons. Gilmore compromised by lowering his tie a tad.

"God bless him: He's conscientious. But he's no George Allen," Showker said as he chatted later in the kitchen. "People don't criticize him. They're just blah about him."

After the speeches around Showker's indoor pool, Allen went back outside to thank the barbecue chef and wound up having a beef sandwich with him.

Gilmore idled in his van, raring to seize the next chance to show that he has personality, too.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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