Which candidate for governor has the bigger political hill to climb this year when it comes to the issue of the 2004 tax increases?

The answer may not be as obvious as it first seems.

On the surface, it might appear that former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) has the clear edge. He opposed Gov. Mark R. Warner's tax proposals last year, going so far as to declare the Democrat a liar at a rally on the grounds of the state Capitol. And Kilgore took that position in a state considered to be conservative, Republican and anti-tax. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win in Virginia was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supported the tax changes, the centerpiece of which was a decision to increase taxes by $1.5 billion over two years. Sales taxes, cigarette taxes and deed recording fees all rose. Not more than a year later, Virginia's economy is roaring back to the tune of a $500 million budget surplus.

Kilgore aides think the issue is perfect for them.

During the next 21/2 months, they will hammer home twin messages in TV ads, mailings, radio spots and stump speeches: The tax increases weren't necessary, and Kaine will just raise your taxes again.

"I didn't support the largest tax increase in Virginia history, and I'm proud," Kilgore said during the first debate this summer. Of Kaine, he added: "You can take to the bank what he's going to do. He's going to raise your taxes."

The message might work.

It's simple. It hits people where they really live: their pocketbooks. And the part about last year's tax increase has the benefit of being true. Kilgore opposed it. Kaine supported it. For Kaine to win in November, it seems as though he must find a way over that hill.

But look a little deeper and the story becomes more complicated. Two realities temper the advantage for Kilgore and offer Kaine some real hope of winning the argument about the 2004 tax increases.

First, there is precious little evidence that Virginians are upset about the tax increases. In fact, anecdotal evidence and polling data suggest that most Virginians didn't even notice the higher taxes.

When the sales tax increased from 4.5 percent to 5 percent in September, there was hardly a peep from anyone in Virginia. The same goes for smokers, who didn't stage mass protests when the tax on their habit rose from 2.5 cents to 30 cents per pack.

More recently, public polling has given objective support to the idea that few Virginians are outraged by the increases. Warner's popularity is soaring -- to more than 75 percent approval -- despite having been clearly identified as the driving force behind the tax increases. And, in a recent public poll, a good-size majority said it approves of the tax increases.

No. 2 in Kaine's favor: education.

Every time Kilgore talks about the tax increases, Kaine and his team try to turn the argument back to what Virginians got for that money. Specifically, he reminds them that most of the increase made possible a huge investment in public schools -- almost $1.5 billion over two years.

At town hall meetings across Virginia, Kaine has not only reminded folks of the overall number but has also calculated what local communities got for their schools because of the tax increase.

It's the biggest applause line he gets each time.

Education is consistently the top issue on people's minds in Virginia, polls suggest. Kaine's aides think his support of the tax increases will translate in people's mind to support for education. Kilgore's opposition to the tax increases, they hope, will translate into a disdain for schools.

"If that's the argument," a Kaine aide said of taxes, "we win."

If Kaine is right, then Kilgore's campaign is playing right into Kaine's hands by focusing so much attention on the tax increases. The ads expected from Kilgore soon -- attacking Kaine for raising taxes -- could backfire.

Or maybe Kilgore is right. There has not been a concerted effort by anyone to stir up opposition to the tax increases since they took effect. If past is prologue, the talented Kilgore campaign machine could be very effective in whipping up opposition to the tax increases.

There are other issues of course: abortion, gun control, the death penalty, crime, transportation. But both campaigns seem to be heading toward a confrontation defined principally by the 2004 tax battle. In a sense, that's as it should be. The 2004 tax fight was an enormous political battle. It's only natural that it becomes the fulcrum on which this year's governor's race will tilt.

But which way will it tilt?