Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore accused Gov. Mark R. Warner's transportation department on Tuesday of moving too slowly on needed road projects.
In a rare criticism of the popular outgoing Democratic governor, Kilgore took direct aim at one of the central efforts of Warner's administration: revamping the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Kilgore said the department was slow to request federal money owed to the state, causing delays. Warner aides said the bookkeeping requests did not delay a single Virginia project; the Kilgore campaign was unable to cite one.
Kilgore's comments prompted a day of verbal sparring between the Republican candidate and Warner's aides and left political observers puzzling over the campaign's strategy as the election season nears its end. Voters go to the polls Nov. 8.
"I don't think it makes sense politically to be attacking a governor with over 70 percent approval ratings," said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "It distracts the campaign from its own message. It's not a smart strategic move, as far as I can tell."
Kilgore's criticism of Warner came in a morning conference call with reporters, in which he also accused Democratic candidate Timothy M. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, of supporting increased gas taxes, a charge Kaine denied.
In a television ad that began airing across the state Tuesday, Kilgore accused Kaine of supporting a legislative proposal by Republican senators in 2004 to raise taxes on gasoline. Kaine said Tuesday that he "never signed on to the Senate transportation package."
"Jerry's decision to launch an attack on the gas tax is an attack on his Republican Senate colleagues," Kaine said.
But Kilgore's gas tax message was overshadowed by the back-and-forth over his charge that the Warner administration officials had waited until September to request federal money it could have asked for months earlier.
Kilgore said that hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money could not be spent during the height of Virginia's summer road construction season because of the delay, and he vowed to do better if elected in November.
"It should make every motorist mad to pass a half-finished project knowing that the money needed for its completion is gathering dust in Washington, D.C.," Kilgore said. "Our urgency and effectiveness is on the decline."
But pressed to provide examples of any projects that were delayed, aides to Kilgore later said that the candidate was only raising a red flag about an issue of concern. Spokesman Tim Murtaugh said he could not point to any particular project that was delayed.
"This is just the overarching argument," Murtaugh said.
Warner often cites improvements at VDOT, where projects are now routinely on time and within budget. Aides rejected Kilgore's remarks as political nonsense.
Kevin Hall, Warner's spokesman, said the complicated process of requesting federal transportation funds, called "obligation," does not affect the timing of projects underway on Virginia's highways.
In fact, Virginia officials announced Tuesday that the state had been awarded an extra $30 million in federal highway funds above its original allocation.
"This is categorically untrue and displays an astounding lack of understanding of how the process works," Hall said of Kilgore's accusation. "The obligation process is completely separate from project management, and the Federal Highway Administration will tell you not a single project was delayed."
Murtaugh countered that the Kilgore campaign had been in touch with officials at the Federal Highway Administration who would back their version of events.
In the end, federal officials backed neither side.
"States are responsible for deciding when and how to employ their annual available federal aid dollars," said Brian C. Keeter, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Any further information should come from VDOT."
Ginsberg reported from Washington.