-- As Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine travels across Virginia, he offers voters this bold assertion: If you believe in Gov. Mark R. Warner, you can believe in me, too.
Kaine's strategy of linking himself to the popular Democratic governor will be put to the test in such places as the Powder Keg, a clapboard sportsmen's shop along a winding road in the Appalachian foothills, 425 miles from Washington. Just ask the proprietor, Gary Mullins.
"Lot of people liked Warner when he came down here, and he pretty much has done what he said he was going to do . . . or not do," said Mullins, standing amid the clutter of camouflage jackets, crossbows and seemingly endless rows of ammunition. "He was down here a lot and was talking about supporting our rights to have a gun and keeping our kids here." A man sitting on a folding chair nodded his head in agreement.
"But I guess the way I see it," Mullins continued, "each candidate has to earn their own votes. Just because one guy says he's like another guy doesn't mean he really is."
Kaine, the lieutenant governor, hopes to convince skeptics such as Mullins that he will continue Warner's centrist policies on social issues and government spending.
A Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 6 to 9 found that Kaine had not made that sale with many potential voters in rural areas. He was trailing his Republican opponent in the Shenandoah, southwest and Southside regions.
"I just don't see how Kaine is going to appeal to people down here with some of his positions," said Thomas R. Morris, a professor of political science and president of Emory & Henry College, outside the southwestern town of Abingdon. "Warner's strategy isn't going to work two election cycles in a row.
"He's been down here a little more recently," Morris said of Kaine, "but he just hasn't laid the same groundwork as Warner."
Kaine's two opponents are from rural areas. Republican Jerry W. Kilgore grew up not far from Norton, and his family is well known there. Independent H. Russell Potts Jr. is a state senator from Winchester, in the Shenandoah region.
Kilgore, the former attorney general, has tried to convince rural voters that Kaine is not the moderate businessman Warner was but a liberal who cannot be trusted.
Securing the generally Republican-leaning rural vote -- or at least not losing too badly -- has been key to Democratic victories in the past several decades.
In 2001, Warner was able to win two of the three rural congressional districts in Virginia with an aggressive outreach that included a courtship of the National Rifle Association, a bluegrass campaign ditty, support for capital punishment and a message of economic hope that helped him squeeze out a five-point win statewide over Republican Mark L. Earley.
In 1989, Democrat L. Douglas Wilder won the governorship by remaining largely even with his GOP opponent in Appalachia and Southside. But recent history is littered with unsuccessful Democrats who lost badly in the rural areas: 1993 gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry, 1997 gubernatorial candidate Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Charles S. Robb, who lost his Senate seat to George Allen in 2000.
Kaine has tried to re-create some of Warner's strategy. Like Warner, he set up a sportsmen's group that touts his support for outdoorsmen. He has said he has no intention of advocating new gun control laws. He tells rural voters: "Mark Warner and I said four years ago that we wouldn't pass any new gun laws, and we haven't."
Kaine, like Warner, has come with a message of jobs and economic vitality, saying he has helped bring money for schools to rural areas. He has said he will enforce the death penalty, despite a religious opposition to it. In radio spots, Kaine has presented himself as a "man of faith" in an appeal to religious communities in rural areas.
Kaine campaign officials said Warner's victory and current popularity showed voters that it's all right to vote Democratic.
"One of the things that Mark Warner didn't have that Tim Kaine has is Mark Warner," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's press secretary.
Warner spent years before his 2001 campaign cultivating the rural vote. Soon after the multimillionaire-turned-politician lost the 1996 U.S. Senate race to John W. Warner (R-Va.), he began a courtship with rural voters by using his money to set up business incubators for technology companies.
Business contacts he made turned into political support. He traveled relentlessly in rural areas, impressing on people that he was not just a politician showing up during an election year. All of this, along with the bluegrass-laced ads and sponsorship for a NASCAR truck, made Warner's "rural strategy" a hit.
Since then, Warner has continued to pave the way for Kaine and other Democrats. Double-digit unemployment in some of the state's poorest areas has been reduced to single digits. And Warner has brought his high-tech acumen to some of the lowest-tech areas.
Tomorrow, for example, Warner will help break ground for a network of broadband fiber-optic lines that will link dozens of communities and colleges to the Internet.
The Kaine message: Warner's achievements are mine, too.
Kaine's campaign aides say they expect to gain ground in the rural areas as more and more ads make the connection between Warner and Kaine before the Nov. 8 election.
Kilgore's campaign ran radio ads in rural areas contending that Kaine has reversed his stance on some social issues, including abortion, gay rights and the death penalty, and that his moderate stands are an election-year makeover.
Some potential voters said they thought Kaine's centrist positions on abortion and guns were designed for the election.
"These guys will say anything to be elected," said Barney Thomson, 49, a electrician from Pound, a small town amid the coal fields.
He then referred to Kaine's willingness to sign legislation -- should it pass the General Assembly -- that would close a legal loophole that allows the purchase of firearms at gun shows without background checks.
"I mean, you read about how he wants to close a gun show loophole, but he also wants to keep our gun rights? That doesn't make any sense," Thomson said.
Kaine and his campaign staff continued to express optimism in the face of the rural poll numbers and pointed out that their path to victory need not be identical to Warner's.
They say they hope to win more votes than Warner in the Republican-leaning Richmond suburbs and Hampton Roads. Different candidate, different race, they say.
Indeed, the Post poll showed Kaine leading slightly in the Hampton Roads area and in central Virginia, which includes Richmond and its suburbs.
Kilgore said Kaine is no friend of rural Virginia.
"Voters are going to be able to see and understand the difference between Tim Kaine and Mark Warner on these issues," Kilgore said at Buena Vista. Kilgore has an "A" rating from the NRA, an assignation that holds profound influence in such places as Norton, a city that the coal mining industry spawned in the late 19th century. Kaine received an "F."
Several Democratic elected officials said Kaine's assertion that he's helped Warner bring jobs to the area is powerful. But they acknowledged that Kaine's personal opposition to the death penalty and his belief that abortion should remain legal in most circumstances could make it hard for that message to get through.
"You never get to have the conversation about the economic issues if you can't communicate that you understand" issues such as guns, said U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who has represented the southwest region for more than 20 years. "But I think that to the extent that Mark Warner campaigns for Tim, credibility can be shared."
Rural voters can expect to see a lot of Warner as the campaign heads down the stretch. The governor's effort for Kaine began in earnest Labor Day weekend, when he spent a few days traveling with the candidate, at one point clasping hands above their heads for the cameras in Wytheville. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the person who should be the next governor of Virginia is Tim Kaine," Warner told the crowd, which erupted in applause.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.