Gov. Mark R. Warner brought fellow Democrats to their feet yesterday at the party's central committee meeting in Fredericksburg with the message that House candidates are hoping will carry them to victory.
"We as Democrats have shown what Democratic leadership can do in terms of moving our state forward," Warner told a crowd of about 200. "It was the commonwealth of Virginia, under Democratic leadership, that was named the best-managed state in the nation."
Like Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in the gubernatorial race, Democrats in the House of Delegates campaign are hoping that Warner's popularity will rub off on them in the Nov. 8 election as they try to whittle away at the GOP majority's 60 seats.
"I'm going to be out campaigning . . . virtually every week from now until this election," Warner told the Democrats.
Republicans will counter by focusing attention on a set of policy initiatives they announced over the summer, including plans to end the state estate tax, create a back-to-school tax holiday for school-related purchases and ban local governments from using eminent domain to take private property and give it to developers.
"It shows once again that we're the caucus of ideas, that we're putting forward policy solutions for voters," House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said last week. "I haven't seen any ideas or new policies that our Democratic opponents hope to run on."
Although all 100 seats in the House are up for election, the races will play out in the shadow of the statewide campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Many of the seats are so securely in the hands of Republicans or Democrats that they are uncontested, but each party has identified a handful of districts they hope to turn in their favor.
Republicans have lost four seats since hitting a high of 64 in 2001. But GOP leaders say that they have identified at least three Democratic seats -- in Fairfax County, on the Eastern Shore and in Southwest Virginia -- that they feel confident they can win.
Democrats, who hold 38 seats, also hope to win at least three more, targeting races in Northern and Southwest Virginia.
Party leaders say that Warner's popularity gives them a powerful advantage.
In a Washington Post poll taken Sept. 6 to 9, 76 percent of voters approved of the job he is doing. In an attempt to capitalize, the party's candidates are closely associating themselves with Warner's name and his success in winning passage of last year's tax package, which raised money for education, public safety and health care.
"We plan to pound away at the fact that we are the party of fiscal responsibility and investment," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Campaign literature sent out by Chuck Caputo, a former Fairfax County School Board member running for an open House seat, greets voters with a large picture of the governor and the candidate sitting side by side. On the back, it reads: "Chuck will continue the sound fiscal policies of Governor Warner which have kept our economy strong and the budget balanced."
Democratic leaders say the strategy will work most effectively where their candidates are running against conservative Republicans.
Caputo is facing Chris S. Craddock, an anti-tax conservative who defeated Republican Del. Gary A. Reese in the June primary.
Democrats also hope to defeat Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William) and win the seat being vacated by Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax).
"People love the governor, both Democrats and Republicans," Caputo said, adding that Warner attended a fundraiser for him that packed 175 people into a suburban home last month. "As a Democrat, it has been an enormous help to be able to invoke his success and popularity."
But some political observers have questioned the Democratic strategy, noting that Kaine, not Warner, is at the head of this year's ticket.
"Warner is not on the ballot," said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "It's a good tactic, but only if Warner can link to Kaine. It's going to have to be an indirect link to Warner, through Kaine."
Republicans say it will take more than Warner's popularity and memories of last year's budget fight to defeat key GOP candidates.
In control of the General Assembly since 1999, the Republicans say they have their own record to run on, plus the set of policy initiatives, which also includes ideas on holding down the cost of Medicaid.
The set of GOP initiatives "gives the party a sense that it is part of a team that is advancing a common policy agenda," said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland). It also solidifies the party's identity, he said.
Republicans are targeting the seat being vacated by Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax), who ran unsuccessfully in the primary for lieutenant governor.
They are running a veteran of local politics, former Fairfax City mayor John Mason, who has highlighted his years of experience in local government and his knowledge of Northern Virginia's traffic problems. They hope his record, combined with support for the GOP's legislative platform, will help Mason defeat David Bulova, his Democratic opponent.
"We feel very good about John Mason," said Griffith, the House majority leader. "It's an important seat there in Fairfax, and he would add experience to our caucus."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.