White House political strategist Karl Rove rallied Virginia's GOP stalwarts behind gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore at a gala event Saturday night aimed at raising money for the state's Republican Party.
Rove, who has been traveling across the country to such events in the months since President Bush's reelection last year, told a crowd of about 325 that a Kilgore victory in Virginia's off-year election would send a powerful signal to the rest of the country.
"He's not slick. He's not fancy. He's authentic and real," Rove said. "His election is vital to the commonwealth of Virginia and vital for our party."
Rove, who worked for the Republican Party of Virginia for a year in 1975, spent most of his speech recounting Bush's victory in 2004 and the GOP's rise to power during the past 40 years. He attributed the success to the party's policies and a dearth of ideas from Democrats.
"The people of Virginia and America want nothing to do with what [Democrats] are offering," he said to applause.
Even as Republicans partied, Democrats moved to counter Kilgore's strength in his home base of southwest Virginia. A top Democratic source said the state party will announce as early as Monday that Chairman Kerry J. Donley will be replaced by former House majority leader C. Richard Cranwell of Roanoke.
According to the source, who did not want to be named because some key people still were being informed of the change, Donley asked to step down because of a job he is taking. The source said Gov. Mark R. Warner and gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine support Cranwell as his replacement.
Cranwell, a sharp-tongued lawmaker who was considered the party's top legislative strategist, is popular in Roanoke and other parts of rural southwest Virginia.
The GOP gala at the Richmond Marriott Hotel raised more than $100,000 for the state party, according to its executive director, Shawn Smith.
That money will help refill the party's coffers after the GOP was forced to pay $750,000 to several Democratic lawmakers to settle an eavesdropping case.
Republican lawmakers, including Kilgore, helped the party pay the settlement. Smith said the incident and its repercussions are well in the party's past.
"This is a tremendous event for the Republican Party of Virginia," he said. "It will go a long way toward helping to support our candidates in the fall."
The campaign to choose Virginia's next governor is one of the few statewide elections in the country this year, and one of the most closely watched.
Kilgore faces Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch in the Republican primary June 14. Kaine is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) is running for governor as an independent.
Many Washington political strategists say the outcome of Kilgore's battle with Kaine will provide clues to the many congressional contests that will take place next year. Rove said the outcome of Virginia's race does not always foreshadow the future but is important nonetheless.
"We would very much like to see Jerry Kilgore elected," he said.