Four former and current state lawmakers are locked in a fight for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, an office that has limited responsibilities but lots of potential for those seeking to advance in Virginia politics.
For the first time in recent memory, two candidates from Fairfax County are competing for Virginia's No. 2 job: former congresswoman and state senator Leslie L. Byrne and Del. J.C. "Chap" Petersen. The other contenders on Tuesday's primary ballot are Del. Viola Osborne Baskerville of Richmond and Sen. Phillip P. Puckett of Russell County in Southwest Virginia.
Although lieutenant governor can be a springboard to higher office, the job for the most part involves procedure more than policy: presiding over the Senate and breaking ties. The candidates are working to extend their regional prominence statewide, introducing themselves to voters who may not have heard of them yet.
The winner will earn a place on the Nov. 8 ballot with Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, the current lieutenant governor and the party's candidate for governor.
Byrne, 58, is playing up a 20-year resume in Virginia politics, from state delegate to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives to the state Senate.
The Republican plan for legislative redistricting forced her to give up her seat in 2003. As she aims for a political comeback, she is playing to her base among those voters in the Washington suburbs who identify with the party's liberal wing.
Byrne, of Falls Church, made her mark challenging the establishment, even within her own party, and championing social causes such as abortion rights and gay rights. She has long sided with environmentalists and organized labor and was an outspoken woman in a male-dominated legislature.
"The challenge is to show voters that who is lieutenant governor makes a difference," Byrne said. "Obviously the people who support me understand the experience I bring to the job. Having served in the Senate, I know the rules going in."
Petersen, 37, a two-term delegate and lawyer from Fairfax City, is pitching his campaign toward the Democrats' moderate base outside Northern Virginia, much of it in rural counties.
He calls himself a "new generation" of Virginia Democrat who is concerned about the bread-and-butter issues of jobs and lower property taxes.
"It's fair to say that within every party there is an activist base, which is important," Petersen said. "It's also important to connect with voters who are not part of that base."
Baskerville, 53, has served in the House since 1998 and is hoping to make history in Virginia by becoming the first black woman to win a statewide elected office. Politicians expect her to make a strong showing in her home base. She said that as lieutenant governor she would advance the causes of women and minority-owned businesses.
"Virginia is at the bottom of awarding contracts to small business, women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses," she said at a forum in Richmond last month.
Baskerville also is campaigning for changes in the health care system. She supports higher reimbursement rates for hospitals that reduce patient injuries and medical errors.
Puckett, 57, has a more conservative voting record than his rivals on issues such as gun control and abortion rights and identifies himself as a solidly "pro-life Democrat."
A former teacher and elementary school principal, he has spent 30 years in the banking and insurance industries in Southwest Virginia. He won his Senate seat in a special election in 1998 and is now serving his second full term.
"No one else [running for lieutenant governor] has that experience in the Senate," Puckett said.
He said he would bring balance to the Democratic ticket in November, "geographically and ideologically speaking," and would help Kaine attract rural voters.
Puckett said he is proud of his efforts to help revitalize areas where the tobacco industry is declining by encouraging computer companies to bring jobs to farming areas.
The candidates have campaigned hard in recent weeks in Tidewater, which has large pockets of Democratic voters. Without a favorite son or daughter, the area is considered wide open.
Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.