It was November 4, 1997, and the Richmond Marriott was an explosion of red-white-and-blue Republican joy.

The Virginia GOP -- left for dead only five years before -- had won its second general election in a row. For the first time in the 20th century, the party had won all three statewide offices. And it had increased its representation in the General Assembly to within a whisker of the once-impregnable Democratic majority.

Epicenter of the celebration was Jim Gilmore, the tenacious former attorney general who had turned an underdog's run for governor into a rout. In an 18th-floor victory suite above the celebrating masses, the governor-elect called over Chris LaCivita, the executive director of the state Republican Party, and shared what was in his heart this happy night.

"You have no idea," Gilmore said, "how disappointed I am that we did not take the General Assembly."

Few of the small circle who know Jim Gilmore well would have been surprised at his response. Like Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby -- another outsider who fought his way to the top -- Gilmore focuses on a future that recedes before him in moments of triumph and of defeat. But while Gatsby dreamed of the light at the end of Daisy's dock, Gilmore yearns for something more historic -- the final triumph of the Virginia Republican Party and the final defeat of the Democrats and the system that they represent, a system that kept him and those like him on the outside for so many years.

Others today might look at the Virginia GOP and see a modern, dynamic party with the will and means to fight its rival for any office anywhere. But to Gilmore, he and his party are more like a tattered band of dissidents fighting the monolithic power of an entrenched totalitarian regime. Recalling the Byrd era of one-party dominance, he says, "The same system is in place but the people are different." As for himself and his party, "We should not be here. It's a miracle we are here."

Though the GOP didn't win a majority on election night, Gilmore has skillfully brought it to parity in both houses. After the election, he lured Democratic lawmakers from Republican-leaning districts into his administration -- then unleashed the party machine to win the special elections that followed. He pushed through the legislature his signature proposal -- a phased-in repeal of Virginia's personal property tax on automobiles -- and then made sure that the first refund checks went out with a vivid reminder that the repeal was his idea. He has also pushed through a 20 percent reduction in in-state tuition at Virginia's public colleges and universities.

And he has begun to widen the state Republican Party's base. His Cabinet has two black members, and he named the executive director of the Virginia NAACP as head of the state's minority business office. He has given his defense of the tobacco industry a working-class tinge, reaching out to the Virginia AFL-CIO to frame the state's support for tobacco as an issue of jobs. He has brought the party to the verge of winning a majority in this fall's legislative elections, and is becoming a national figure.

It is an outsize list of accomplishments, and if all goes as planned, it will bring Gilmore out of the shadow of his popular predecessor, George Allen, now running for the U.S. Senate.

Still, even Gilmore's close circle of advisers recognize -- and resent -- that they labor in that shadow. When he was elected, Gilmore was a small and somewhat indistinct figure to most Virginians, particularly those outside the Richmond area. To some extent he remains so today. But since his inauguration, Gilmore has begun to loosen up. Asked recently what he had learned in 18 months in office, Gilmore answered, "I think I have learned that you can do this -- you can effectuate policy and drive it in the right direction."

Over lunch, the governor's conversation is relaxed and cosmopolitan, ranging from the genesis of NATO to a comparison of nature imagery in "The Odyssey" and "Beowulf." A reporter comes away from an interview convinced that Gilmore is the kind of thoughtful and genuinely creative conservative his party desperately needs in the post-Gingrich era.

Claude Allen, a close Gilmore associate, recalls riding down in the elevator from the governor's office in the Capitol on inauguration day with Gilmore's parents. "I guess he's not our little Jimmy anymore," one said sadly to the other.

But a part of Gilmore remains Little Jim -- stubbornly life-size, and indeed sometimes even smaller than life. While to those close to him, he is generous, thoughtful and kind, he can be harsh and vindictive to friends and foes alike outside his inner circle. One Capitol joke retailed on both sides of the aisle poses the riddle, "Why does Jim Gilmore get up early in the morning?" The answer: "So he can go smile in the mirror and get that over with for the day."

When he took office, Gilmore told Virginians that he was "a common man with a truly uncommon chance to serve." He has consistently stressed his humble origins, as the son of a meat cutter and a secretary. He proudly and repeatedly acknowledges that he owes everything he is to public schools and colleges; he grew up in a union household.

The story is not an unusual one in American politics, where humble origins stretch from Springfield, Ill., to Hope, Ark. But in Virginia, as the state's foremost populist, the late Henry Howell, used to say, "everybody wants to wear velvet underwear." Family, blood and breeding, even at the verge of the 21st century, are serious matters in the Old Dominion. Virginia politics, in particular, have always been dynastic. Candidates were known not by who they were but by who sired them.

In the departed days of the Byrd organization, the equivalent of divine anointment was supplied by "the nod," the solemn signal from Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. that a chosen candidate was acceptable to him. In the years since the organization crumbled, Virginia, like a middle-European kingdom between the wars, has scoured the earth for pretenders with a drop of royal blood. Chuck Robb was a prince consort of the Lyndon Johnson family. John Warner was once married to Hollywood's Queen of Egypt. Oliver North proudly claimed the bar sinister of the House of Reagan. Even George Allen came from a football dynasty.

But Jim Gilmore resists the urge to don the purple. He remains identified with the working and lower middle classes that gave him birth. He drinks Miller Genuine Draft; he's been known to catch a Hootie and the Blowfish concert; his favorite restaurant is Pizza Hut. On a Saturday afternoon, he still hangs out at Price Club. He is Governor Six-Pack, Homo suburbanus, and, in the hallowed halls of Virginia's historic Capitol, an outsider.

If bloodlines are the issue, then Jim Gilmore is a son of the 'burbs -- Henrico County writ large -- and proud of it.

Like many migrations, it began with the Old Country. James S. Gilmore III was born October 6, 1949, in Richmond. His parents lived at Robinson Street and Park Avenue in the Fan, across from the Robin Inn, just down the block from the New Central Barbershop and Cavedo's Drugstore, and only a few blocks from William Fox Elementary School, then the city's best.

Though racially segregated, the Fan was a sociological mishmash -- modest row houses and frame shacks standing only a few blocks over from the mansions of the rich on Monument Avenue. For many who grew up in that place and time, the Fan -- with its tranquil, angled streets surrounding triangular parks, its mom-and-pop stores and neighborhood eateries, its vegetable and fruit sellers in horse-drawn carts -- remains a golden memory. But Jim Gilmore's parents were sharing a home with his mother's parents. And Robinson Street, he recalls, "was a pretty major thoroughfare and there was a lot of foot traffic and there were a lot of people going up and down that street my parents weren't very comfortable with. So after a while they decided they wanted to go to the suburbs and so off we went."

The Gilmores were part of a great demographic upheaval that was transforming American life. In other cities, the migration to the suburbs created places like Levittown and Shaker Heights; in Richmond, it spawned Henrico County. On a map, Henrico has a shape somewhat like a limpet, bordering the city of Richmond on three sides -- west, north and east -- above the James River. In 1950, it was made up of farms, crossroads and tiny market towns. Even the county courthouse was located in downtown Richmond, to make it easier to reach.

But by 1960, Henrico had more than doubled its population. Most dramatic was the explosion of wealthy homes along the James River to the west, where River Road cut a swath of privilege among institutions like the Country Club of Virginia, the Collegiate School and All Saints Episcopal Church, newly relocated from the inner city. But farther north of the river was another Henrico -- a yeasty mix of tract homes where working people like the Gilmores could break free of the crowding, drabness and uncertainty of city life. "It was kind of nifty," Jim Gilmore remembers of his new home. "It was a brand-new ranch house."

The neighborhood was called West End Manor. It was nowhere near the river; instead, it was a few miles from Two Guys discount store, the city's first shopping mall and its first McDonald's. Gilmore's father worked at Safeway, his mother at the Methodist diocesan office.

With his high sidewall haircut and two-tone glasses, Jim Gilmore was -- well, in today's terms, a band geek. His entry in the 1967 yearbook of J.R. Tucker High School lists him as student band director, drum major of the marching band, president of the concert band, and a member of the All-County, the All-Regional and the All-Student USA bands. "All I did in high school was play music," he recalls.

But the All-Student USA Band marked a turning point. When the time came to parcel out the solos, Gilmore came up against another clarinetist who literally blew him away. "This guy was so effortless, because he was truly gifted," Gilmore recalls. And he realized that he would never be that good, or even close. For Jim Gilmore, that was the day the music died.

What took its place was politics. Gilmore's Key Club adviser asked him to help get out the vote with door-to-door canvassing. "I wasn't old enough to vote but I was influencing so many others to vote," he recalls. "Suddenly I was on."

"Being a Young Republican then," Stan Maupin says, "tempered you like steel."

Maupin, a Richmond investment banker, met Jim Gilmore in 1967, the year they both entered the University of Virginia. Their classmate George Allen was a backup varsity quarterback; Gilmore joined College Republicans. "We were always looked on as nerds," Maupin recalls. Gilmore spent his Friday nights at the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, a conservative club. But he saw himself as a rebel. He despised what he saw as "an abiding sense of arrogance in the Democratic Party. Something in my personality reacted against that."

Gilmore's visceral dislike of Democrats makes sense only in the context of Virginia history. Until the mid-1960s, the state was run by an oligarchy as tidy and rigid as that of Stalinist Albania. Political power passed from well-heeled father to well-born son, Working people and minorities were on the outside. Poll taxes and literacy tests were formidable obstacles to voting; often only 10 or 11 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. "By comparison," political scientist V.O. Key once wrote, "Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy."

Harry Byrd Sr. and his followers rejected the very notion of a two-party system. During his Democratic days, then-Gov. Mills Godwin told the faithful that "one Republican in the General Assembly is one Republican too many." Although Godwin later switched parties, outsiders like Jim Gilmore have never forgotten the days when they were powerless outcasts.

While at U-Va., Gilmore met Roxane Gatling, a classics student from Suffolk. Ever the party animal, he invited her to join him canvassing door-to-door for Republican candidates. They were married in 1977, and now have two children. Roxane Gilmore teaches ancient history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. She is working on her PhD dissertation, a study of the role of religious cults in the early days of Athenian democracy. "Jim Gilmore is not the most conservative one in that marriage," a family friend says.

After college, Gilmore enlisted in the Army and requested intelligence training. The Army taught him German and sent him to Mannheim, Germany, as a sergeant. Counterintelligence "was pretty interesting work," he recalled. As his term drew to an end, he considered a career with the CIA.

But there were still accounts to settle with those arrogant Democrats back home. All through his Army years, he corresponded with the admissions office at U-Va. Law. Each time he got a commendation or passed a new skills course, he dropped the news in the mail to Charlottesville. It didn't work, though; he was turned down for the Class of 1977. Instead, he enrolled at the less prestigious T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond.

But when the first day of classes at U-Va. came around, he was firmly planted in the admissions office of the law school. The dean of admissions remembered all those letters from Germany, and let him in on the spot. At U-Va. Law, he was up against students who could riff on torts and constitutional law like that long-ago soloist on the clarinet. Gilmore wasn't brilliant like that; he was a plodder. "It was pretty tough going, to tell you the truth, but I kept at it," he recalls. "I got it after a while."

After law school, he found the world of the downtown law firms -- the patrician legal factories that produced governors and judges as readily as wills and debentures -- was not open to a middle-of-the-class kid from West End Manor. "They had the pick of Virginia and Washington and Lee and places around the country and they had people that they knew very well," he recalls. "I'm not in any of that universe."

Eventually he settled into a small firm just over the Henrico line and plunged into politics.

By the late 1970s, Henrico had nearly caught up to Richmond in population. It was also the most solidly Republican county in the state, voting reliably 3 to 2 GOP in statewide and national races. In 1980 Rep. David Satterfield, a popular, far-right Democrat, announced his retirement after 16 years in office. Republicans recruited Tom Bliley, the conservative former mayor of Richmond, as their candidate. But Bliley was a former Democrat, and the local organization wanted one of its own to run the campaign. The choice went to Boyd Marcus, a friend of Jim Gilmore's from college (now his chief of staff). And so was born the "Bliley mafia," a network of bright, young, white suburban Republicans who allied with Bliley in building the party organization, recruiting candidates and enforcing party discipline. Prominent among them was Gilmore, who quickly became a close friend of Bliley's.

In 1987, Gilmore ran for county prosecutor -- commonwealth's attorney. It was, he recalls now, "probably the hardest race I've ever run." His opponent, former assistant prosecutor L.A. "Al" Harris, had been appointed by the county judges -- all Democrats -- to fill a sudden vacancy. It was the traditional Virginia way of passing on authority, which was expected to flow down from the courthouse rather than up from the grass roots.

"During the race I was looked on as something of an interloper," Gilmore recalls. He didn't have much of a record as a criminal lawyer. But he had the drive to get out and knock on doors, to stand in shopping centers day after day offering brochures to apathetic strangers. "That's not something that a lion of the criminal bar would necessarily have been able to do," Gilmore says.

Soon after taking office in 1988, he received a letter from a local physician asking for guidance about state law. The doctor had a comatose patient in a local nursing home whose family wanted him to withhold life support. The patient had no hope of recovery, but the doctor wondered what his legal position would be if he ordered nutrition and water withheld.

Gilmore's close associates report that he often takes a long time to make important decisions. "He did agonize over that case," says Gary Aronhalt, then an assistant in the commonwealth's attorney's office and now secretary of public safety in Gilmore's Cabinet. "It was on his mind for a substantial period of time -- first one way and then the other. It was absolutely not a religious matter. It was a question of the law."

Gilmore concluded that, as the Virginia statutes then read, a doctor who withheld life support would be guilty of homicide. Though the case never became public knowledge, both Gilmore and his associates say it made a deep impression on him, one that would later play a role in his response to the high-profile Hugh Finn case when he became governor.

As prosecutor, Gilmore made converts of his political enemies at the courthouse. "I think he's a good manager," says Al Harris, the man he defeated, now a county judge. "He left on very good terms, and I never saw any big mistakes."

By the time he was reelected in 1991, Gilmore had established his reputation as a law and order prosecutor. Now he began a two-year crusade to take his act statewide, as the Republican candidate for attorney general.

Del. Steve Agee, a General Assembly veteran, was the party establishment's choice; Gilmore fought for the nomination as an outsider. Bryan Slater, his campaign manager, recalls that he and Gilmore would get into the candidate's car after work each day and drive into the hinterland -- anywhere within three hours' drive of Richmond where two Republicans were meeting. "The strategy was, Go everywhere and do everything," says Slater, now secretary of administration in Gilmore's Cabinet. The two men would eat a hasty dinner (Gilmore usually chose Pizza Hut), then Slater would drive while the candidate reviewed his speech. Often they would arrive at a rural Republican meeting and have to beg for two minutes on the podium. Gilmore would sit patiently through the meeting, briefly introduce himself, and then drive home again.

The strategy worked. Once nominated, Gilmore began another underdog race. By Virginia tradition, the attorney general comes from the legislature; the post of Virginia attorney general had traditionally been viewed as primarily a civil lawyer's job. Gilmore changed the paradigm. He ran for top cop and law-enforcer -- in effect, recasting the job as commonwealth's attorney of the entire state.

In office, Gilmore, as he had done on taking over as commonwealth's attorney, retained a staff mostly recruited by his predecessor, Democrat Mary Sue Terry. Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, an aide to Terry who now works for Democratic House Speaker Tom Moss of Norfolk, remembers a meeting with the staff right after Gilmore's inauguration. "You need to understand that this is a democracy. I got elected and the only loyalty that counts is loyalty to me," she recalls him telling the staffers. All the employees, including clerical staff, were asked to reapply for their jobs. Most were kept on.

As attorney general, Gilmore was duly conservative. He joined a tobacco industry lawsuit that won a ruling denying the Food and Drug Administration the right to regulate tobacco as a dangerous drug. He was relentless in his defense of the death penalty. He drafted new state laws that sharply limit the time during which inmates can bring death-penalty habeas corpus petitions. As a result, Virginia today has perhaps the fastest injection gurney in the country, and is second only to Texas in executions per year.

But in other ways, Gilmore surprised those who expected a right-wing party-liner in the office. One of his high-profile crusades was against Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state's largest health insurer. A Trigon policyholder had found that the company was negotiating discounts for medical care but was not passing on the savings to consumers. The company had negotiated a $23 million refund to some of its customers. But Gilmore saw the refund as insufficient, and he began a criminal investigation of the company. Dick Leggitt, a media consultant who is a close adviser to the governor, recalls that Gilmore "got calls from some of the most prominent people in Virginia telling him, `Lay off these people.' " The company finally agreed to return a total of $73 million.

Gilmore also disappointed the conservative wing of the party when it targeted Sen. John Warner for a purge in 1996. Despite pressure from right-wing activists, Gilmore upheld a Virginia statute that gave an incumbent senator the right to choose between a convention and a primary. Warner swamped his opponent in the primary and went on to reelection.

At the same time, Gilmore became concerned about the apparent epidemic of church burnings that swept the country during the early '90s. He convened a summit of eight Southern attorneys general, held at Howard University on July 2, 1996. At Gilmore's urging, the keynote speakers were L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia, and Elaine Jones, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Claude Allen, at the time Gilmore's counsel, who is African American, recalls a subdued stir when Gilmore asked his own pastor to stand. Samuel E. NeSmith, then pastor of the mostly white River Road United Methodist Church in western Henrico County, is African American as well. "I could hear people saying, `His pastor's black?' " Allen recalls. NeSmith says that Gilmore had asked him to attend despite some differences in philosophy. "I'm a lifelong Democrat and he knows it but I have been supportive of him."

Gilmore's inclusive gestures would serve him well when he ran for governor in 1997. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, was well ahead of him in name recognition and fund-raising, and had a seemingly invulnerable political base in Northern Virginia.

If genius is discerning facts that are so obvious no one else notices them, then, in his career of uphill slogging, Jim Gilmore and his political brain trust had their moment of genius early in 1997. After looking at polling data and listening to focus groups, they decided to build their campaign around repealing Virginia's personal property tax on automobiles.

Every voter resents taxes, even if they are necessary. The car tax was regarded as a particularly infuriating levy. Each year, automobile owners had to pay a rate set by their locality on the assessed value of their cars, no matter how long ago they bought them. While other taxes are hidden in payroll deductions or mortgage escrows, the car tax required each owner to write a check to the local revenue office. And to make matters worse, the tax was regressive -- it applied to only the first $20,000 of assessed value, meaning that the owner of a new quarter-million-dollar Rolls Royce paid the same dollar amount as the owner of a new Ford Taurus.

Beyond this, Gilmore's slogan -- NO CAR TAX -- evoked echoes of Virginia's populist past, when Henry Howell almost won the governorship in the 1970s by crusading against the state's sales tax on food and nonprescription drugs. In effect, the car tax was, for suburbanites, the equivalent of the food tax for the urban and rural poor -- a regressive levy on a necessity of life. At a stroke, Gilmore sliced apart the Democratic coalition, with a slogan that appealed to black voters as strongly as to suburban whites.

The car tax platform rattled Don Beyer. At first, the lieutenant governor dismissed Gilmore's plan as irresponsible, arguing that he was underestimating the havoc it would wreak on local budgets. But as the campaign wore on, Beyer suddenly changed position and unveiled his own car-tax-reduction plan. The switch infuriated party activists and local officials who had gone public with opposition to Gilmore's plan. Beyer next blundered by attempting to link Gilmore with right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson, who had given his campaign $50,000. The attack ad mobilized Christian conservatives, who had never regarded Gilmore as one of their own. Then, in October, Wilder publicly refused to endorse Beyer, who had been his lieutenant governor, and the bottom dropped out of the Democratic ticket. Gilmore led a GOP sweep.

As governor, Gilmore has done to Virginia Democrats what Bill Clinton did to the national GOP. He has identified issues that help the opposition, stealthily surrounded them and made them his own. When Gilmore proposed his phased car-tax repeal, General Assembly Democrats unveiled their answer -- a partial repeal of the food tax. Fine, said Gilmore, we'll do that too. When the governor proposed funding for 4,000 entry-level teachers statewide, Democrats responded with a plan to fund construction of new schools; Gilmore cheerfully appropriated that one as well.

Thus far, his take-no-prisoners style has won more battles than it has lost. The first phase of car-tax repeal went into effect this past spring. When an appointee to a citizen board questioned the measure, Gilmore fired him; when a study commission for a local business group criticized the long-term impact of repeal, Gilmore pressured the group into disavowing the report. His relations with the legislature have also been abrasive. Gilmore is the first governor in more than a quarter-century to come to office without having served in the legislature. (Chuck Robb, who never held a legislative post, spent four years presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor.) He has shown little taste for the back-slapping and teasing that legislators expect.

Indeed, Democrats say they have had almost no contact with the governor. "Other than to say hello in the hallways or have a casual conversation at breakfast, I have only had one substantive conversation with this governor," says House Democratic Leader C. Richard Cranwell of Roanoke. "George Allen was a kind of unflappable jolly guy who could take a few barbs. Gilmore is aloof, austere. He seems uncomfortable with people."

House Speaker Tom Moss (D-Norfolk) recalls attending a reception at the governor's mansion at which Gilmore's staff had prepared a name tag for him that simply said "Del. Moss" -- a small but stinging omission that seemed to deny his legitimacy in office. Moss attempted to make light of the awkwardness. "I said, `Governor, you don't have your name tag -- how do we know who you are?' He just looked at me and stared."

Sen. Joseph Gartlan (D-Fairfax), one of the deans of the Northern Virginia delegation, remembers running into Gilmore at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington. As diners were filing out, the two had a few minutes' friendly chat. Suddenly the governor said, in tones of wonder, "You know, Joe, on a one-on-one basis you're not a bad guy."

Gilmore has used his veto power to punish legislators -- Republican or Democratic -- who did not fall in line with his legislative priorities. Lawmakers of both parties have joined to override three such punitive vetoes aimed at Republican moderates. It's the kind of rebuke that George Allen never suffered.

Gilmore's relations with other Republicans are often not smooth. Associates of both men say he maintains cordial relations with Allen. But there is a notable lack of warmth between the two camps that goes beyond the natural rivalry between party leaders. When Gilmore took over, his staff publicly blasted Allen's for leaving the governor's office in a state of confusion. Gilmore has removed a number of Allen appointees, replacing them with his own trusted supporters. And when Gilmore won tax relief -- a prize that eluded Allen for four long years -- Allen went on a Richmond radio program to complain that Gilmore's tax cut wasn't big enough.

If Gilmore's task is to make a record that takes him out of Allen's shadow, he's well on his way. Recent polls put his statewide approval rating at 54 percent -- about where Allen's was at midterm. National GOP leaders have noticed Gilmore's success in building an inclusive but impeccably conservative administration. Dan LeBlanc, the head of the Virginia AFL-CIO, calls the difference between Gilmore and George Allen "night and day. In Allen's administration there was no dialogue, no meetings with Cabinet-level people. Zero. I think this governor is a much smarter politician."

Gilmore's politics -- both when they are inclusive and when they are divisive -- grow directly out of his conservative political philosophy. Underlying that philosophy is a vision of ordinary people -- folks not unlike his parents -- getting enough money to have real freedom. "I want to provide the maximum opportunity for freedom, for individual people's ability to control their own lives and not become subject to forces and powers greater than themselves, to be more of their own kind of people." And as Gilmore sees it, the enemy of freedom is the tax collector. "Taxes," he says simply, "are dreadful."

The Gilmore credo is hard-edged -- thus, for example, the governor threatened to veto a program to provide health insurance for sick children if the legislature tied it into Medicaid, which he regarded as welfare. But where other conservatives find the enemy in public education, government employees, unions or racial minorities, Gilmore can reach out to all these groups. And his speeches frequently repeat a genuine concern that government not ignore "the most vulnerable among us." In Jim Gilmore's Shining Suburb on a Hill, there are new ranch-style homes for everyone.

In fact, in Gilmore's world there remains only one irredeemable enemy. Today's General Assembly Democrats, he says indignantly, operate like the old Byrd machine -- as a "lockstep bloc" aimed only at perpetuating their own power.

In its combination of bare-knuckled partisanship and demographic outreach, Gilmore's approach is very similar to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." Gilmore has become a favorite on the national party's banquet circuit. When President Clinton devoted a radio address to explaining the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia, Gilmore gave the nationwide Republican response.

Now he stands poised on the edge of the final triumph. Most observers expect the GOP to pick up the two House of Delegates seats it needs to end "power-sharing" in Richmond and establish a genuine Republican dominance.

And yet . . . one still has the sensation of a man whose shadow is slightly larger than his stature. For all his inclusive gestures, Gilmore's closest advisers remain suburban white males, many of whom he has known since his days as a College Republican. He is most comfortable with nominees whose loyalty is exclusively to him. He declined to return a high-profile Allen appointee to the state's board of higher education. Instead, he turned to a young, unknown Richmond lawyer named Kirk Schroder -- and then demanded that the board, nominally independent, install Schroder as its president. Schroder, a protege of Gilmore, recalls the governor's phone call the day the appointment was announced. "He told me, `No one knows you but I know you and I want you to know how much trust I put in you.' "

Gilmore has rattled Virginia's state college presidents by suggesting that they -- and their alumni foundations -- should be more directly under state control. His comments reveal a touch of resentment at the high-flying ways of the presidents, whose salaries are by far the highest in state government. "What seems to make him tick is this Henrico County populism," says Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "He seems almost viscerally upset at college presidents for their lifestyles."

"I have been in Northern Virginia more than any governor in history," Gilmore said recently -- but his sensibility remains centered in suburban Richmond. He lives, and always has lived, in a world where the minutiae of politics -- votes traded, positions changed, victories won and lost -- loom large to most people. Perhaps because of that focus, he seems tone-deaf at times to the way his actions sound when they echo on a larger stage.

Take the case of Hugh Finn. The 44-year-old broadcaster, injured in a car accident in March 1995, had been in a coma for 31/2 years when his wife, Michele, decided with his doctor to end feeding and hydration and let him die naturally. State law had been changed since Gilmore's days as a prosecutor; the new statute clearly allowed a legal guardian to make this decision for a patient without hope of recovery.

After hearing medical testimony, the local circuit judge agreed that Michele Finn, her husband's legal guardian, would be carrying out his wishes by terminating life support. Members of Hugh Finn's family at first accepted this decision; later, some of them became convinced that he was not really in a persistent vegetative state. They carried their protests to Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), an outspoken foe of abortion, and Attorney General Mark Earley, a leader of the GOP's religious right. Marshall enlisted the public support of national right-to-life groups in D.C., which began to picket the nursing home where Finn was a patient.

After the judge reaffirmed his order, Gilmore jumped in, bringing suit against Michele Finn under an obscure statute giving the governor authority to represent Virginia residents in need of protection. His suit charged that terminating life support was euthanasia. A mere 21/2 hours after receiving Gilmore's appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected this claim, ruling that disconnecting feeding tubes "merely permits the natural process of dying and is not mercy killing or euthanasia."

To Gilmore, it was the Henrico County case all over again -- even though the statute had been changed. To the former prosecutor, disconnecting life support still seemed like killing. He had made his mind up about the issue years before, and changed circumstances did not affect him.

But in Henrico County, he had been a local official giving advice behind the scenes. Now he was the most powerful man in the state -- the embodiment of big government -- thrusting himself into a private family tragedy. Political advisers warned that his actions would bring public disapproval down on him. Gilmore's intervention was easy to interpret as a political payoff to the religious right. "It's really about abuse of power," argues Gregory L. Murphy, Michele Finn's lawyer. "I thought Republicans stood for not having government interference in private lives."

Gilmore's aggressive and clumsy handling of the controversy will probably be linked with his name every bit as long as the car-tax repeal. Still, he insists he did the right thing. "I didn't think that it was a political issue at all, to tell you the truth -- or even a public issue," Gilmore says. "I have been surprised that it created a situation that could be exploited. I didn't foresee that."

Gilmore seemed equally tone-deaf to political implications when he appeared in a magazine ad for the National Rifle Association. "I'm the NRA," he said, holding a hunting weapon, a pose that may have permanently alienated some suburban voters. When he publicly fires an appointee for questioning his policies, or threatens to veto a bill paying Michele Finn's legal fees, he makes himself look petty and mean. And such an impression, once created, can be hard to change.

Which brings us to the Suburban Matron of All Battles, the public burning of Panny Rhodes.

Del. Anne Rhodes (R-Richmond) is everything Jim Gilmore is not. The daughter of a North Carolina textile-mill owner, she is married to a wealthy utility executive. Rhodes mixes easily with the crowd that gathers at the Country Club of Virginia and shops on "the Avenues" in Richmond's near West End ("You can tell she gets her clothes at Talbot's," one colleague says affectionately).

Rhodes has served in the legislature since 1992, after she won the nomination against a former Democrat backed by Tom Bliley and Jim Gilmore. Since her election, she has steered an independent course that has infuriated Gilmore and George Allen. She repeatedly helped block Allen's plans to cut state income taxes. When Gilmore became governor, she publicly sided with Democrats about the figures that underlay the car-tax repeal. And she voted against Gilmore's bill to require parental notification when underage women seek abortions.

This spring, Panny Rhodes found herself in a bitter primary against a more conservative opponent with the improbable name of Ruble Hord. Hord is a multimillionaire; he is also one of the coterie of Gilmore-style true believers who entered the ranks of the Virginia GOP in the '60s. Gilmore stepped publicly into the primary fight in a way few Virginia governors ever have. On May 3, in the fourth-floor press room of the Capitol, he lined up Tom Bliley, Attorney General Mark Earley, former attorney general Richard Cullen and Joe Benedetti, director of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services -- an entire nine yards of angry white male -- to blast Rhodes as no better than a Democrat.

To Gilmore, the decision to intervene was a matter of management. He does not simply want a Republican majority in the House, he wants a working majority -- one that reliably follows his lead. "There's no real risk involved" in the purge attempt, he explained later. The 68th District is reliably Republican; whoever won the primary would win the seat.

Yet, once again, he seems not to have grasped how launching a full scrum of business-suited, white Republican males at Panny Rhodes would transform an obscure intraparty race into a statewide phenomenon. Rhodes adroitly fought back with a press conference in which she noted that she is the senior female member of the Republican caucus and questioned the motives of the male phalanx attacking her. "I was raised to believe that reasonable people could disagree," Rhodes said. "Apparently, Jim Gilmore and those that appeared with him today do not believe that includes reasonable women." She gained further visibility a few days later when Sen. John Warner stepped in to take her side.

Gilmore mailed out full-color brochures with his photo, attacking Rhodes and supporting Hord. West Enders were offended. Republican legislators from around the state endorsed Rhodes. Upscale Democrats who had never voted in a GOP primary crossed over on June 8, and Rhodes won handily. The voice of the Republican-leaning elite, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has never warmed to the unclubbable governor, declared that "Gilmore & Co. were as fatuous in the heavy-handedness of their action as [Rhodes] was in declaring them anti-woman." Warner publicly rejoiced, and rebuked Gilmore chief of staff Boyd Marcus, whom he once branded "the Prince of Darkness." Because Gilmore had staked so much on this obscure battle, the result was a major, needless black eye for the governor.

The irony is that Rhodes is precisely the kind of independent thinker who used to be the chief adornment of the Virginia GOP. If Gilmore must purge his party in order to defeat "undemocratic" Democratic machine politics, he may in the end be seen as simply forging a new, Republican machine -- carpet-bombing liberty in order to save it. And the image of highhandedness could discourage voters from giving him the GOP majority he wants. Warns Democratic Sen. Joseph Gartlan (who is retiring), Democratic gains in the fall would guarantee the governor "a very long two years."

Defeat has never stopped Jim Gilmore. In the months ahead, he will be charging toward that brilliant future when liberty is triumphant and the Democrats lie under his heel like the fallen tyrant pictured on the Virginia state flag. Whether he gets there or not, few who have studied his career doubt that he will seek further office. If Warner retires in 2002, Gilmore will be a natural candidate to replace him. Or he might easily gain appointive office in a possible Bush administration.

The unanswered question, though, is whether he will remain the taciturn, bare-knuckled infighter of his first two years in office, or show the public the thoughtful, creative conservative thinker his staff and friends know and admire. If he does, he will still be the boy from the 'burbs -- but no longer Little Jim.

Garrett Epps is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon. He is a native of Richmond and author of The Shad Treatment, a novel of Virginia politics.