Four years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, interrupted the Virginia governor's race between Mark R. Warner (D) and Mark L. Earley (R), national events once again have the potential to shape the state's upcoming election.
Hurricane Katrina and, to a lesser extent, the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist could alter the political atmosphere for the three men running for governor: Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent.
That's not to say that the race will be decided by these events. Even the terror attacks didn't entirely rewrite the 2001 campaign, and the basic dynamics and strategies of the current contest were set in place many months ago.
Still, the candidates have already begun to respond, cautiously, to the Gulf Coast tragedy and to the prospect of two battles over Supreme Court nominees in the campaign's crucial last two months.
Visitors to Kaine's Web site are urged to "do all you can to help our fellow Americans as they struggle with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina." Kilgore sent an e-mail to his donors, asking them to contribute to relief efforts.
Katrina's most obvious effect in Virginia is on gasoline prices, which surpassed $3 a gallon last week, increasing the cost of travel for residents and businesses and potentially reducing further the amount of state tax revenue for roads as people buy less gas. State officials said that effect already started to be felt before the hurricane.
But what can the candidates say? The federal government, not the states, regulates gasoline. Is there much a governor can do?
Just days after Katrina, Kaine responded to the rapidly rising gasoline prices and issued a call for oil companies to voluntarily hold down prices during the emergency. Kilgore called Kaine's comments nothing but a publicity stunt.
The exchange is an example of how touchy it can be for candidates as they seek to empathize without seeming to be taking advantage of human tragedy.
High gas prices also could affect Potts, who has said the state's gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon should be raised to finance the billions of dollars in roads, bridges and tunnels needed to ease congestion. That was a difficult sell when gas was $2.50 a gallon. Can he persist if it's $3.50 or more?
Beyond gas prices, though, the images from New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama might generate questions from voters about how Virginia would have fared during such a calamity.
Too often -- and this race is no exception -- campaigns become highly packaged debates about issues that have been focus-grouped to death. To date, there has been virtually no discussion about which candidate could better lead Virginia through a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
Maybe now there will be. It's not only appropriate, but necessary, because the tragedy was not just a natural one. The death and despair were compounded by a series of governmental failures to respond at all levels. Voters in Virginia have a right to know what the candidates would do to make sure those failures don't happen here.
The effect of Rehnquist's death on the campaign is even less clear.
When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement in the summer, the campaigns braced for a nomination battle that could have raised abortion to a red-hot issue in Virginia and nationwide. President Bush's nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to deflate that possibility as he earned some bipartisan support.
Bush's decision to nominate Roberts for chief justice means he will have to pick a new nominee to replace O'Connor, a key swing vote on the court. If he does that soon, two sets of hearings could be going on during the Virginia campaign.
What does that mean for Virginia politics? That depends on whom Bush picks. If he replaces O'Connor with someone in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, abortion rights activists could launch the massive advertising blitz that has been on hold for now. That could have a huge effect on the election.
In 1989, a Supreme Court decision that handed states the power to regulate abortion transformed the race. In exit polls that year, voters said abortion was by far the most important issue. The same could happen this year.