Asked what they thought of former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor, this is what a sampling of voters said: Half think he is honest in his political dealings, and half think he would work to hold taxes down. Half think he would keep the economy strong, and half think he would improve public education. Almost half think he would improve transportation, and 19 percent think he is too far out of the political mainstream.
And 40 percent think he shares their values. The same number think he is neither too conservative nor too liberal -- just right.
What about Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic nominee? Exactly the same.
A Washington Post poll, conducted the first week of September, found that Virginians hold both candidates in remarkably similar esteem as the battle for the executive mansion enters its final weeks.
It might be an indication that people have not yet paid much attention to the race. But it might also be a sign that neither man has the kind of outsize personality that generates passion for or against a candidate.
Bill Clinton had that larger-than-life personality. So did Ronald Reagan. Oliver L. North, the Republican candidate for Senate in 1994, oozed personality. Kaine and Kilgore? Not so much.
In the absence of strong personalities, many voters in the Post poll probably answered the questions as if they were choosing between generic Candidate A (Democrat) and Candidate B (Republican).Virginia's gubernatorial races tend to divide into ones that feature defining issues or ones that have defining personalities. It appears this campaign has neither.
In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder (D) became the nation's first black elected governor. Although he has a defining personality, there was a defining issue in that race, as well: abortion. A court decision in the summer triggered an avalanche of concern among women that states might outlaw abortion, and Wilder rode that to the governor's office.
Four years later, George Allen (R) beat then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) with another combination of personality and issues. The cowboy-hat-wearing, tobacco-chewing, son-of-a-football-coach shtick helped Allen sell two main promises: welfare reform and parole abolition.
By 1997, James S. Gilmore III (R) trounced Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D) with a single issue: the car tax. Neither candidate exuded personality -- Beyer might have been Mr. Rogers -- although Gilmore later showed an acerbic side that helped to ruin relations with the legislature and damaged his legacy.
Mark R. Warner (D) won four years later with no real issue, other than a promise to manage the state better and hold a referendum on a transportation tax. Although he was (and still is) somewhat awkward personally, his persona -- millionaire technology entrepreneur -- helped him cross the finish line first.
In 2005, neither candidate has offered a blockbuster issue, preferring instead to propose carefully crafted positions. Want to lower homeowner taxes? Both candidates have a plan. Want more roads? Neither candidate offers much in the way of money. Want better schools? Kaine and Kilgore promise that, too.
As for personality, don't hold your breath.
Kilgore is the perfectly groomed candidate. He stays on message. Kaine, who entered the race with a reputation for shoot-from-the-hip frankness, has become almost as carefully managed.
But there's still time -- and hope. Last week, for example, a bit of the real candidates showed through, thanks to a discussion forum at the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.
Answering a question from the crowd about deficits in the Gilmore years, Kilgore went off message and said there had been no deficits. Technically true; they were "shortfalls." But people in the audience didn't care. They laughed out loud, even as Kilgore barreled ahead stubbornly, insisting he was right.
Kaine's reaction was immediate and harsh. The next day, he called a news conference to denounce Kilgore as practically incompetent. No carefully crafted words there.