M ike Haley, who sells honey, beckoned to Jerry Kilgore, who wants to be governor of Virginia. Haley offered a deal: "I swear, if you tell me how you're going to solve these gas prices, I'll vote for you."

Kilgore was game. "I'm the one candidate who won't raise your gas taxes," he told Haley at the Chesterfield County Fair, south of Richmond, over the weekend. "Take that to the bank."

Haley nodded and said nothing, and the Republican candidate continued on, shaking hands. The honey man's vote is still up for grabs. "I want to hear what's being done, because this is ridiculous," he told me. "At least in the '70s, they did something, those odd-even days" when motorists could buy gas only on certain days, depending on their license plate numbers.

By tradition, Labor Day is when voters finally pay attention to candidates who've been selling themselves to the politics-obsessed for eons. But right now, if people are thinking beyond the fact that summer is ending and school is starting and traffic will be awful again, they're focused on Katrina and gas, not on the race between Kilgore and Tim Kaine, his Democratic opponent.

Both K-men are saying obvious and right things about the flooding. The feds should have reacted faster. Existing evacuation plans aren't enough.

But that's not what people want to hear about. Three-dollar gas has a way of getting complacent people to tune in. Dead bodies floating in a magical tourism city tend to raise questions about how we're doing as a society.

There are only two possible explanations for the shame of the past week: incompetence or a lesser regard for poor people than our leaders have for people like them. Take your pick; either way, you get angry questions.

Renee Conner of Chesterfield jogged over to catch Kilgore's ear: "What would you do if it happened here?"

"I'd be right in the middle of it," Kilgore said. "You just got to be on the ground immediately, with all your emergency response people."

What more could you want him to say? But no, Conner said, "I was hoping he would say more about if we had a tragedy like that, we should be doing more to help those people."

(Kaine was also disappointing: He responded to the surge in gas prices by asking oil companies to voluntarily freeze their prices. Right.)

Kilgore heard it over and over: What went wrong? What would you do if the next one hit here?

Almost every person who asked was white, and they asked on behalf of the black people they see suffering on television, and on behalf of themselves, because whether the proximate cause is natural or terrorist, this could happen to any of us. People vented because they see an ugly gap between our image of what this country is all about and what we have witnessed in New Orleans.

Some people look at the faces of those who ended up stuck in the flooded city and see a picture of our economic divide; those who couldn't get out were, by and large, poor and black. Others look at those same pictures and see themselves, because most of us can imagine staying behind with an immobile parent or getting stuck because once upon a time we didn't have a car or wouldn't have had the savvy to reserve a hotel room.

When I asked Kilgore if the hurricane's aftermath made him think about the gulf between haves and have-nots, he said no, and he spoke, with passion, about advances in civil rights and about his own story -- he was the first in his farming family to go to college. "We have made great progress," he said, "but there's more work to be done."

It was my turn to want something more.

Back at the fair, David Reid stopped Kilgore to ask about gas and war. "Would we still be there if Iraq wasn't sitting on oil?"

Kilgore said yes, we would; we're in Iraq to spread democracy.

"That was such a political response," Reid told me. "I voted for George Bush, but come on, let's just acknowledge oil is a part of it. Every time I vote now, I feel like I'm choosing between Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke. These guys are like talk radio; they want us to think everything is one extreme or the other. But it's just not that way in life. I like George Allen, and I like Mark Warner."

It's a rough time to be running for office. Voters are seeing through the polarization trick that lets candidates ignore the country's common sense middle. There's nothing like a crisis to make people see what's really important. Sadly, the politicians think they can keep shading the strike zone.