-- Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), who is chairman of President Bush's reelection campaign in Virginia, might be changing his mind about whether Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry could win the state's 13 electoral votes.
For weeks, Kilgore has dismissed the idea. At a rally with Bush in Annandale, he called talk of a Kerry victory in the commonwealth "crazy claims" and vowed that "Virginia is Bush country." At the Republican National Convention, he told anyone who would listen that the Democrats were full of hot air.
But in a fundraising letter mailed to Bush supporters last week, Kilgore repeatedly warns that Bush could lose the state in November. A Democrat has not won the Old Dominion's electoral votes since 1964.
"The nation is politically polarized like we have never seen before and there is a chance a liberal Democrat can win Virginia in November's presidential election," Kilgore writes. "Many experts will tell you, Virginia is in play."
Later, he says, "polls show [Kerry] is within striking distance of the President."
Democrats in the state pounced on the letter, calling it a major acknowledgment validating their belief that Kerry can become the first Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson to win Virginia.
"It's huge. It's a profound concession," said Laura Bland, the spokeswoman for the Virginia Democratic Party. "There should be no doubt in anyone's mind now that Virginia is a battleground state because Jerry Kilgore has said so."
Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the Center for Politics, said jokingly that "Democrats might want to send [Kilgore] a pair of new shoes -- a pair of flip-flops."
Kilgore said Wednesday that he has not changed his mind. He said he still thinks that Bush will win, but acknowledged that he is "playing off the hype" from the Kerry campaign in his fundraising letter. And he said his letter is consistent with his long-standing belief that Republicans should take nothing for granted.
"It's fair to say the letter is a call to action to donors around Virginia to put our money up," Kilgore said. "Let's put up the money, and we'll win handily. I'm more confident than ever about Virginia."
The Kerry campaign stepped up in Virginia in June with biographical television ads in several parts of the state. Democrats cited Kerry's decision to advertise in declaring that Virginia finally was going to matter.
In the months since, the efforts have expanded: Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, have visited the state five times, and surrogates arrive regularly. Last week, Kerry's children campaigned in Richmond and Charlottesville. Yesterday, Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, was in Northern Virginia and Richmond.
Kerry officials say they now have more than two dozen paid staff members in the state, operating out of headquarters in Richmond and Northern Virginia. A Zogby International poll released just before the Republican convention put Bush one percentage point ahead of Kerry.
"It's a dead heat," Bland said.
Republicans, including Kilgore, have spent much of the summer denying that the president would have any trouble winning in this conservative state. Bush won 52 percent to 44 percent over Al Gore in 2000.
Ken Hutcheson, the state director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, noted that there have been indications in the past week that Kerry is backing out of Virginia. A $45 million television advertisement campaign announced by Kerry strategists last week does not include Virginia.
"You will see a totally different letter the next time we drop a letter," Hutcheson said. "It will reflect the status of those two campaigns here in Virginia at that time."
Sabato said he is not surprised at the fundraising letter, which exhorts Republican supporters with heated rhetoric.
At one point in the letter, Kilgore writes that Republicans "face a ruthless, bitter, hate-filled, liberal Democrat machine that is ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to 'avenge' Al Gore's 2000 loss to President Bush."
Also in the letter, he decries a "small army of radical, truth-deprived leftists" who took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.
Sabato said that kind of language is par for the course, especially during this year's campaign.
"It's classic politics," he said. "Direct mail is built on exaggeration. Anybody who believes anything in a direct mail letter should come to me for some wonderful swampland that I have available."