Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine likes to say that governors don't pick issues, issues pick governors.

The same might be said of candidates for the state's top job.

Going into the 2005 election season, many political observers predicted that the governor's race would be decided by issues that dominated state politics in 2004. Chief among them was taxes, which roiled the General Assembly last year.

Others said the campaigns would focus primarily on transportation, capital punishment or gun control.

Those issues might yet come to dominate as Kaine and his opponents, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and independent H. Russell Potts Jr., spend millions of dollars in the next four months.

But it seems more likely now that unexpected events will offer voters a chance to assess differences among the candidates on subjects that have not been in the spotlight for years.

Abortion and property rights are suddenly back on the front burner, and the bombings in London might prompt a new discussion about terrorism.

The resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gives President Bush a chance to reshape the court's position on abortion. Candidates in Virginia have already begun to discuss the implications for their campaigns.

Advocates for abortion rights could become more politically active, possibly benefiting Kaine. The national argument could also spark intense interest among people who vote on religious issues, who typically favor Republicans. In 1989, abortion rocketed to the top of the state's agenda after a surprise Supreme Court decision.

The nation's top court also issued a property rights ruling last month that has prompted some Virginia candidates to issue statements or propose new legislation. In Kelo v. City of New London, the justices boosted the power of local governments to seize property in the interest of economic development, even if such projects are privately financed.

Kaine said that he's "deeply concerned" and that he would support legislation to limit the effect of the decision in Virginia.

Several candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general rushed to comment. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he was "profoundly distressed" by the decision and pledged to convene the legislature's housing commission to develop responses.

How voters react depends on whether the candidates can make a compelling case that they have the better solution.

Terrorism is usually a national issue. But Virginia was one of the states struck by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists. So the London bombings are a sudden reminder that the state's governor is also its chief law enforcement officer.

Hours after the bombings, Kaine's Web site was updated with a page offering sympathy to the people killed or injured on the trains and the bus in London.

"Tim Kaine and all of Kaine for Governor's thoughts and prayers are with the people of Britain as they confront terrorism in London and mourn the countrymen they lost this morning," the new Web page said. It offered visitors a link to donate to the British Red Cross.

Until last week, the crime and safety debate among candidates had been largely about gangs. Candidates have several months to decide whether that discussion will change now.

It will happen in the campaign backrooms, where the candidates, their media advisers and their strategists decide whether and how to make these new subjects work for them.

The most nimble team -- the one that can quickly capitalize on the public's newfound interest in these subjects -- will have the advantage.

The new issues might also play out in the debates. Although the debates will not be seen by most of Virginia's 7 million residents, they can be critical in helping to define the campaign agenda. In 2001, for example, the disagreement between candidates Mark R. Warner and Mark L. Earley over the transportation tax referendum was highlighted at a debate. The vote became a dominant issue from that moment on.

The first of the debates will be Saturday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Look there for the best hint so far about which issues will pick these candidates.