Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore appears to be making a play for voters right in his opponent's back yard. Black voters, to be exact.

Richmond is about 30 percent black. It's also home to Kilgore's opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who is counting on a huge turnout in his city and the surrounding area to help offset Republican strength elsewhere. Kaine was mayor of Richmond before his election as lieutenant governor in 2001.

The city and its black residents are a key part of the Democratic strategy in the Nov. 8 election.

Last week, Kilgore began running radio ads in Richmond and the largely black areas of Norfolk urging listeners to ignore a candidate's political party and vote for the person. The message: Don't let the Democratic Party take you for granted.

"This year, let's be for the person, not the party," the announcer says. "Somebody like Jerry Kilgore. Why Jerry Kilgore? Because Jerry Kilgore listens. He actually cares about people. . . . Let's listen to what he has to say."

Campaign aides for Kaine say they are not worried. They say the ads are running only a few times each day and are not enough to make a dent in what they describe as strong support for Kaine among blacks.

But the ads are not the only evidence that Kilgore hopes to steal away some of that support.

Last week, Kilgore attended an NAACP reception in Richmond honoring civil rights leader Oliver W. Hill. (President Bush hasn't attended a national NAACP meeting during his presidency.)

Kaine was at the reception, too, but stopped by for only a few minutes before going to a long-planned fundraiser. Kilgore stayed for more than an hour, his campaign spokesman said. The contrast prompted the black newspaper in Richmond to criticize Kaine.

"Heads turned in search of Mr. Kaine when he was scheduled to speak," the Richmond Free Press reported. "The lieutenant governor was nowhere to be found."

Kaine aides said they are not taking black votes for granted. Last week, Democrats lashed out at Kilgore's campaign for comments made by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman during a visit to Richmond.

Mehlman, in town to offer the RNC's endorsement, vowed to help elect Kilgore by using the "tactics and tools" that the GOP employed to get Bush reelected last year.

Democrats seized on that comment, saying they believe it means that Republicans will attempt to suppress voter turnout in urban areas, especially among black residents . That accusation was leveled by black leaders against Bush's campaign after Election Day last year.

"Let's be clear," the statement by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said. "The tactics the Republican Party used to help George Bush beat John Kerry weren't just 'aggressive.' They were in some instances illegal, and in the context of African Americans' struggle for the vote, despicable."

Kilgore aides dismissed the statement as overreaching. They noted that after making the comments about tactics, Mehlman joined Kilgore in an hour-long private meeting with the black publisher of the Richmond Free Press.

By Election Day, however, it may not matter whether either candidate attended a dinner or ran a radio ad or held a meeting. The man holding the key to the black vote, especially in Richmond, may be that city's mayor.

Call him Wild Card Wilder.

The former governor, L. Douglas Wilder, is a Democrat. But he's famously stingy with his endorsements. In 1997, he refused to endorse Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer (D) for governor. His endorsement of U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) in 2000 was tepid. Both men lost their races.

Last year, Wilder was elected mayor of Richmond after winning 80 percent of the vote. His endorsement could mean even more now after that landslide.

What's Wilder going to do this time around?

It's a safe bet that both sides are losing a little sleep wondering.