A headline on an article in some editions June 5 mistakenly referred to the Virginia attorney general's race as a contest for lieutenant governor. (Published 6/14/2005)

At a recent meeting of the Prince William County Republican Committee, Richmond lawyer Steve Baril declared that the campaign for the GOP nomination for attorney general between him and seven-term Del. Robert F. McDonnell had tightened up and become a horse race.

For evidence, the political newcomer noted that he has raised more money than McDonnell in recent months, lifting his campaign fund to where it is second only to gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore among Republicans.

The crowd filling the county's government chamber listened attentively. But many, who represent the county's most active party loyalists, were wearing stickers on their clothing -- for McDonnell.

McDonnell (Virginia Beach), 50, boasts deep ties to Republican political leaders and conservative groups that he said will help him carry the June 14 primary. Baril, who never has held elected office, said his money totals -- he's raised more than $1.5 million -- indicate he's reaching a wider audience and gaining political traction among business leaders.

"There are a lot of good Republicans who aren't at meetings like this," Baril said after the Prince William event. "There are a whole lot of people who participate in the primary who are not political insiders."

McDonnell said Baril is a political neophyte, lacking the experience and alliances to be effective in a statewide office, which he said contrasts with his own widespread support. Seventy-four of 85 Republican members of the General Assembly, six of eight Republican members of Congress and five former Republican attorneys general, including former governor James S. Gilmore III, are backing the delegate.

An event at an Ashburn home for several dozen of McDonnell's supporters Wednesday night featured guest speaker Edwin Meese III, who served as U.S. attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"My opponent has absolutely no working knowledge of state government, no understanding of the legislative process and virtually no allies in the General Assembly," said McDonnell, a former prosecutor and Army officer. "I'll be effective from Day One."

The attorney general is considered the state's top lawyer, offering legal advice to lawmakers and the governor and representing the commonwealth in court. The job, often considered a steppingstone to the executive mansion, also involves supervising an office of nearly 200 lawyers.

Baril, 50, has advocated hiring 100 state police officers who could be dispatched to crime hot spots and expanding drug court programs, which provide supervised treatment to addicts.

He has worked hard to cultivate support among business-minded party members, some of whom have been disappointed in the state's lack of investment in its infrastructure. On his Web site, he published a list of several hundred lawyers and business leaders who have endorsed his campaign.

One name listed is chairman and chief executive of real estate behemoth Long and Foster, based in Fairfax. Wes Foster said he is formally backing Baril because, unlike McDonnell, Baril sought a meeting several months ago and asked for his support.

"I met with him, I liked him, and I decided to back him," Foster said.

Baril also has advocated spending $1 billion a year for a decade on transportation through tolls, general fund revenue and public-private partnerships. He touted the idea as a "Marshall Plan" for the state's roads and transit.

The platform was an unusual choice for a candidate for attorney general, a job generally associated more with law-and-order issues. Political analyst Robert D. Holsworth, the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the candidate appeared to be using the plan as "a signal, a sign to the business community that 'I'm on your side, even if I have to stretch the role of attorney general a bit.' "

McDonnell called Baril's transportation plan a "calculated political move" and said his own experience in the General Assembly has shown a commitment to transportation, including support of this year's $850 million investment in roads and sponsoring legislation to spur public-private partnerships.

In his campaign, he has been pushing an anti-terrorism plan to make the state's Office of Commonwealth Preparedness permanent, conduct more mass casualty drills and study better use of federal funds.

The two candidates have clashed on sentencing guidelines for convicted criminals. Baril said the state's Sentencing Commission, which sets out voluntary guidelines for judges for different crimes, has been decreasing the time criminals serve.

The commission's recommendations should be put to a vote in the General Assembly, he said.

McDonnell said crime rates have been falling since he worked with then-Gov. George Allen (R) in the 1990s to abolish parole. He has argued that giving the General Assembly a greater role in the guidelines issued to judges would politicize courts.

McDonnell, who chairs the House of Delegates' Courts of Justice Committee, which deals with legal matters, is pushing for longer sentences for sex offenders and for repeat drug offenders.

Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), one of the state's most conservative political leaders, said that McDonnell has earned his bona fides among antiabortion voters and that they will come out to support him. "Because of his reputation on pro-life issues, he has roots that extend all across the state," Black said.

Whichever Republican wins the nomination will face Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), unopposed for the Democratic nomination, in the Nov. 8 general election. Deeds announced last week that he would push for a requirement that sex offenders wear global positioning devices indefinitely and be arrested if they went within 100 yards of a school or day-care center.

Richmond lawyer Steve BarilDel. Robert F. McDonnell