Nannynanny boo boo, you're such a yahoo.

That might as well be the battle cry of the campaign trail in Virginia, where Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore are entangled in a noxious, gnarly, accentuate-the-negative race for governor. The election is in November.

"They are like two kids fighting in a sandbox," says Russ Potts, a third-party independent candidate who is lagging behind the K-men.

In a state known for its civility and gentility, the enmity is surprising. Kaine and Kilgore are pushing each other off the playground, battling for all the marbles, all the cookies, all the Crayolas.

Apparently everything Kilgore and Kaine know about campaigning they learned in kindergarten.

Like dressing someone up as a duck to mock Kilgore. Tucker Martin, a Kilgore staffer, recalls an incident at the spring Shad Planking in Wakefield where the Kaine folks "dressed up a guy in a duck suit who tried to follow Jerry all around." The point they were trying to make: Kilgore ducks debates.

He was "a dastardly duck," Martin said, who "tried to push his way through Kilgore supporters and at that point promptly split open the toe of a female Kilgore staffer."

Or like body-checking a Kaine supporter.

Just outside the gates of the Virginia Cantaloupe Festival at the Halifax County Fairgrounds in southern Virginia on a recent summer afternoon, Jerry Kilgore hugs and busses supporters who are hoisting Kilgore signs. Carrying a huge Kaine for Governor poster, Alleyn Harned, 25, stands close -- perhaps too close -- to the clamoring clutch of Kilgorites. Harned is Kaine's "visibility coordinator," the guy in charge of planting Kaine signs amid the sea of Kilgore signs.

One of the Kilgore faithful, Tucker Watkins -- who works for Sen. George Allen -- gets outraged and, using his chest and his body, bumps Harned back away from Kilgore. It's a particularly ugly little skirmish in what the political operatives refer to as "the sign wars."

Kilgore seems oblivious to the ruckus going on behind him. "I'm running for governor," he says, dressed in an orange-and-purple-plaid short-sleeve shirt, shaking hands with festival-goers.

It's that kind of contest. "Things can get a little tense," Kilgore will say later.

Staking Out Positions

Both the front-runners are seen among political observers as promising and photogenic. Both are lawyers. Both cast themselves as loving husbands and fathers. Kaine -- 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, 47 years old -- is the state's lieutenant governor. Before that he was a Richmond city councilman and mayor. Kilgore -- 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, 43 years old -- has been, until he resigned to run in this campaign, Virginia's attorney general. Before that he was the state's secretary of public safety under Gov. George Allen. Kaine and Kilgore had side-by-side parking spaces in the garage near the state capitol in Richmond.

There is no love lost between them. Kilgore paints Kaine as a left-leaning liberal who favors gun control and higher taxes. Kaine portrays Kilgore as a fiscally irresponsible conservative who is against education funding and diversity. The truth, of course, is more complicated, but that doesn't keep the candidates from taking potshots.

"My opponent has more flip-flops than a Virginia Beach souvenir shop," Kilgore said to a crowd of about 80 activists and supporters outside a Dulles International Airport hangar in June.

"I'm sure Jerry will say a lot of things without me in the room, but will he say those things when I have an opportunity to challenge him?" Kaine responded in an interview with the Virginian-Pilot.

Kaine and Kilgore attack each other "because they genuinely view the other candidate as destructive to public purposes," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia who moderated the candidates' first debate last December.

The presence of malice in the campaign is a microcosmic reflection of a national schism, a fiercely superpartisan war that is sucking the centrism out of American politics. Political analyst William Schneider, a Virginian, told the Virginian-Pilot in the mid-1990s that "Virginia has a very powerful sense of political decorousness. . . . It's almost gentlemanly." Historically, public mudslinging in the land of Thomas Jefferson has been frowned upon.

In the past decade, or so, things have begun to change. The intense national interest in the 1994 senate race between Democrat Chuck Robb and Republican Oliver North and the 1997 gubernatorial race between Republican Jim Gilmore and Democrat Don Beyer increased the flow of bad blood.

Virginia, says Ferrel Guillory, a political guru at the University of North Carolina, "is increasingly typical of mass society. . . . Television is white-hot. Sound bites are shorter. All of these forces have forced candidates to draw bright lines and narrow their messages to certain hot cues."

"It is a nasty race," says Nelson Wikstrom, who teaches political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The two men come from different backgrounds. Kilgore is from southwest Virginia with that twangy accent that Kaine supporters have mocked. Kaine is not even a Virginia native. He is from Missouri and is a Harvard Law School graduate."

"Jerry Kilgore is not being straight," says a slick radio voice in a Kaine spot titled "Weak." Oddly enough, the ad also lambastes Kilgore for using a slick radio voice. "What is Jerry Kilgore afraid of, and why won't he speak for himself?"

Kilgore's camp takes umbrage at this ad that seems to mock Kilgore's voice, which is a high-pitched drawl.

"Jerry Kilgore," the ad concludes. "The wrong values. Too weak to lead Virginia."

Tim Kaine, according to another slick radio voice in a Kilgore ad, "says he's a conservative, but that's just flat-out false. Tim Kaine supports abortion on demand, wanted to stop the death penalty, even supported gay adoption and that was just the beginning. In fine liberal style, he worked closely with the ACLU and later opposed posting 'In God We Trust' in our schools, an idea he called ridiculous. Tim Kaine says one thing. Tim Kaine's liberal record says another."

As Sabato sees it, "Kilgore is the perfect red candidate; Kaine is the perfect blue candidate. They reflect those deep national divisions. And they are working hard to deepen those divisions."

The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows them neck-and-neck, each with nearly 40 percent of the vote and Potts carrying 9 percent.

Have Spoon, Will Stump

At the cantaloupe fest, Carol Foster, 65, is having a fine time. In an orange Kilgore for Governor shirt and khaki shorts with a Kilgore sticker on the hip, Foster is chairman of the Halifax County Republican Party. She says she doesn't know why there is such acrimony between Kilgore and Kaine, but she doesn't blame Kilgore one tiny bit for getting upset about people mocking his accent.

In the festival, Kilgore zigzags among the deep south Virginians who are swilling beer, bearing down on Brunswick stew and digging the midsummer rock-and-roll of a cover band with a Kid Rockish singer. Kilgore's guide through this revelry is the county's commonwealth's attorney, Kim White, an impressive politician who seems to know every T-shirted geezer and short-shorted young 'un under the sun, a sun that is quickly vanishing behind gathering rain clouds.

Thunderheads move up on the horizon like gray vultures. Kilgore keeps pressing flesh. In full photo-op form, he eats the traditional half-cantaloupe filled with vanilla ice cream. He brings his own metal spoon because the plastic ones break. Kilgore does a masterly job of not spilling any of the dessert on his shirt or pants.

"The cantaloupe is sweet," he says, "but the ice cream is better."

Chandra Womack-Craig, 41, carries her daughter, Courtney, 4, on her back. Of Kilgore she says, "I like his values, his morals."

A man in a Confederate flag T-shirt shakes Kilgore's hand.

Wayne King, 57, a retired electrician, is wearing an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers cap. He says he's for Kilgore because Kilgore opposes any form of gun control.

Jane Lloyd, 54, says she's for Kilgore because he supports the death penalty. Her son is a trooper in North Carolina and she believes a strong death penalty is a deterrent to the dangerous criminals who might threaten him. "I worry about him all the time," she says.

Just before 6 p.m. the heavens open up and rain crashes down on the festival. Kilgore and his staff hurry out during the first drops and hightail it to Richmond.

Later, Kilgore says, "We are the two most different candidates the major parties have ever nominated. Virginians really are going to have a real choice."

Four years ago, he says, candidates Mark Warner and Mark Earley "ran as the same candidate. We're not doing that."

Warner and Earley were relatively polite during their contest, says political analyst Wikstrom. Warner came from a business background, he says, and "Earley's temperament was mediated by his deeply held religious beliefs."

Both candidates wanted to appear as gentlemen, Wikstrom says. Kaine and Kilgore, he adds, are "a pair of sharp-tongued men who are used to the rough-and-tumbling world of politics."

All Steamed Up

About 1,000 folks are sardined into the Clarendon Ballroom, a funkified wooden-floored bar in Arlington, where Tim Kaine is about to be introduced by Barack Obama. Some folks have come to see the dark-haired former mayor of Richmond who is running for governor; others have come to see Obama, the charismatic Illinois senator.

In any case, people have ponied up $35 to $500 per ticket. There are: a couple of tables of cheese and crackers, cash bar, flashing lights, songs blasting overhead. It's a mostly young crowd. A vast flag behind the small stage reads: Tim Kaine Leading Virginia Forward.

There are a lot of people who are not from Virginia and some who are not necessarily for Tim Kaine but are against any Republican: the Kaine-by-default crowd. Kayte Kennedy, 25, of Arlington, is in the Kaine-by-default crowd. She stands near the stage: dark blond hair, black pants, black T-shirt that reads: "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like." She moved down from New Hampshire a couple of years ago. She works for the Girl Scouts. She says she's supporting Kaine because "he's a Democrat!" She adds, "I'm definitely not for the other guy."

Robert H. Smith, 66, of Alexandria, is treasurer of the Mount Vernon Democrats. "I think Mark Warner is pretty special," he says. "Kaine would be a worthy successor." Kaine does have some crossover credentials: He is married to the daughter of former Republican governor Linwood Holton.

In a display melding the national spite with the local, Rep. Jim Moran clambers up onto the ballroom stage. He lashes out against the "unjustifiable" war in Iraq. "I hated Richard Nixon!" he says, wiping the sweat from his brow.

He says he wasn't too crazy about Ronald Reagan either. Then he turns his ire toward President Bush. "I cannot believe that this guy," he says, "makes those guys look good by comparison." He adds, "This is the worst presidency we have ever endured!"

Moran introduces Obama -- a breath of cool and upbeat air. Cell phone cameras are held aloft like lighters at a rockfest. In a clear voice, Obama says of Kaine, "Tim is our best and only hope."

Kaine takes off his coat and rolls up his sleeves. He gives someone a thumbs up. He winks at another. When he talks, his left eyebrow arches higher than his right. Obama hands him a $10,000 political-action-committee check.

"Jerry Kilgore," Kaine tells the crowd, "is a Republican who has fought us every step of the way." Kilgore has been fighting against education funding and to eliminate the state lottery that helps pay for education, Kaine says. "Jerry Kilgore, as attorney general, went to the Supreme Court and asked them to declare the Americans With Disabilities Act unconstitutional!" He is referring to a case in 2003 in which Kilgore argued that allowing individuals to sue under the ADA violates a state's sovereign immunity against lawsuits, says Kaine's press secretary Delacey Skinner.

As people cheer, the defiant strains of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" fill the air.

Will a Cooler Head Prevail?

In gray slacks and blue shirt, the Third Man, Russ Potts, stands in the parking lot beside his black Jeep and fiddles with his yellow tie. He's an hour early for a speech to the Falls Church Rotary Club at the Harvest Moon, a brick box of a Chinese restaurant on Arlington Boulevard.

Potts -- 5-foot-7, 154 pounds, 66 years old -- is a Republican who is pro-choice and pro-adoption by gay parents. He believes the Republican Party has lost touch with mainstream Virginians. He has raised only a small fraction of the millions the two other candidates have raised. Kaine has agreed to include him in a series of debates, Kilgore refuses to.

Unlike Kaine and Kilgore, who are in their political midlives, Potts is near the end of his. He has been elected to the state Senate four times from the oddly shaped 27th District, which covers Clarke and Frederick counties, parts of Fauquier and Loudoun counties and all of Winchester City, where he lives.

This quixotic quest for governor, he says, is his last political foray. But the animosity between Kaine and Kilgore, Wikstrom says, just might work in Potts's favor.

At the Rotary Club it's a piddling turnout -- 11 attendees. There are lots of empty chairs. The small group pledges allegiance and sings "God Bless America" and the Rotary Grace, both in the key of off.

Then Potts -- accompanied by his wife, Emily, two daughters and his grandson -- is introduced.

There's no mention of his gubernatorial candidacy in the program or in the introduction.

He is listed only as a member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and he is introduced as a former sports editor of the Winchester Star, athletic-department administrator at the University of Maryland and Southern Methodist University, vice president of public relations for the Chicago White Sox and as a state senator.

Potts speaks, mostly wistfully, of sports and of his friendships with basketball greats John Thompson and Lefty Driesell. Eventually, he points out that, by the way, he is a candidate for governor. He doesn't mention the names of Kaine and Kilgore.

During an interview just before dinner, Potts also talks longingly about politics. About a time when enemies agreed to disagree and still liked each other and had respect for one another and at the end of the workday would slap each other on the back and buy drinks all around. He reminisces about a time that seems long gone and lost forever. Emily sits nearby, quietly sipping a Diet Coke.

About his younger opponents, Potts says, "It has gotten personal between those two. Time after time, they bash each other."

It is reflective of politics throughout the country, he says. "We are a more divided and angrier nation than at any time in my lifetime."

Emily Potts just can't keep quiet any longer. She leans forward and says that her husband is the only one with the necessary experience, and maturity, to run the state.

She says, "We have to change this poison that's in the air."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore at the Virginia Cantaloupe Festival last month. Sample jab: "My opponent has more flip-flops than a Virginia Beach souvenir shop."Sen. Barack Obama, left, gave support to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine at the Clarendon Ballroom in Arlington. "Jerry Kilgore," Kaine told the crowd, "is a Republican who has fought us every step of the way."Russ Potts has his hand in the race, but is far back of Kilgore and Kaine. Republican Kilgore, left, and Democrat Kaine shake hands after a debate on July 16. The two have shown surprising enmity toward each other.