The two major party candidates for governor in Virginia waited just a few hours after the state's primary season ended Tuesday night and then launched the first blistering commentary of the general election campaigns.
Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore joined his newly chosen ticket mates and other top Republicans at rallies in Richmond and Northern Virginia.
"My opponent has more flip-flops than a Virginia beach souvenir shop," Kilgore said to the crowd of about 80 activists and interested Republicans outside a Dulles International Airport hangar.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said the GOP ticket is fighting "against budget reform and civic responsibility." Mo Elleithee, his communications director, called the Republicans "the most partisan, the most divisive, most anti-progress ticket in Virginia history."
And Sen. H. Russell Potts (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent, joined the fray. He called Kilgore's team "extreme, radical [and] far right" but also criticized Kaine for opposing the death penalty and said both major party candidates have been ducking solutions for transportation, health care and education.
"Neither of the two gubernatorial candidates have been willing to address making the tough decisions on those issues," Potts said in an interview.
A tiny group of voters went to the polls Tuesday to choose the slates for the fall campaign. Preliminary state tallies showed that less than 7 percent of Virginia's 4.4 million voters cast ballots.
Republicans chose Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover) for lieutenant governor and Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) for attorney general. Both men defeated candidates who campaigned with the backing of centrist Republicans and moderate business executives.
The GOP also nominated Kilgore, though more than 30,000 voters, or about 17 percent, voted for Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch.
Voters also nominated Leslie L. Byrne, a former state senator and member of Congress, as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, rounding out the three-person ticket with a classic liberal politician. Kaine and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), the candidate for attorney general, were unopposed.
Strategists for all three gubernatorial campaigns immediately claimed an advantage in what is likely to be a costly race to Richmond in the Nov. 8 general election.
Democrats said their team will appeal to independents and moderates who backed Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and his efforts to improve the state's finances. Republicans said their conservative ticket will attract solid support from people who opposed Warner's push to increase taxes.
The GOP team vowed to use Byrne's record in Congress and the legislature to link Kaine to liberal policies from which he has attempted to distance himself during the past six months. And they repeatedly returned to the issue of taxes.
"The difference between us and the Democrats is that we believe in building a better Virginia by growing the economy, and they believe in building a better Virginia simply by raising taxes," Bolling said. "We reject that outdated liberal notion."
Kaine welcomed the idea of a partnership with Byrne, saying "Kaine-Byrne-Deeds. We're a team and we're going to run as a team. The three of us are going to be fine."
Kaine aides also rejected the tax argument.
"They stood up against budget reform. They stood up against the investments in public safety and education," Elleithee said. "I'll take that debate any day."
Potts's top campaign strategist said the senator will start with Fitch's 17 percent of the vote and will build on that with Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to get to the 34 percent he needs in a three-way race to win.
"The only thing between us and viability is money and [inclusion in] debates," said strategist Tom D'Amore. "If we get $5 million, Katie bar the door."
In a series of stops across the state, Kilgore promised a team dedicated to "defending Virginia values of faith, family and freedom."
He said he would oppose efforts to include Potts in candidate debates.
"I support . . . voters [getting] a view of candidates that can actually win this election," Kilgore said. When asked whether that was a no on including Potts, Kilgore said: "That's a no."
Potts immediately shot back, saying that Kilgore's stance "speaks volumes of his arrogance."
Republicans began their victory tour yesterday at the GOP state headquarters in Richmond, with more than 100 loyalists jamming into a midsize second-floor hall, clapping and cheering for the three candidates.
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee and the leader of President Bush's reelection campaign last year, told the enthusiastic supporters that Virginia's election offers "a choice between principled conservatism and tax-raising liberals running away from their record."
In the afternoon, about 80 people milled around the fire lane in the parking lot of an airline hangar at Dulles, waiting for the party's nominees to arrive.
State GOP Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin, who introduced the candidates, characterized the November election as more than a race between Republicans and Democrats. It is between "principled conservatives and flip-flopping liberals," she said.
Democrats plan to hold their own "Unity Rally" in Williamsburg on Saturday. Warner will join Kaine, Byrne and Deeds at the event.
Staff writer Michael A. Chandler contributed to this report.