"The race for governor is now tied."
That bold statement came from Pete Brodnitz, the chief pollster for Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), in an internal memo released to the media last week.
Brodnitz, who has been Kaine's pollster for years, based the statement on mid-September polling that showed Kaine with 40 percent of the electorate; his Republican opponent for governor, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, with 39 percent; and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent, with 4 percent.
"While past internal polling has consistently shown a small Kilgore lead, that is no longer the case," Brodnitz wrote in the Sept. 20 memo. "As the public polls have indicated, the context in which the race is occurring continues to benefit Kaine."
It is the latter, more than anything, that privately gives Kaine and his team a sense of optimism as the campaign enters its final and most crucial weeks.
Brodnitz and other Kaine staff members say that Kaine is on the popular side of the issues that most people care about, such as education, while Kilgore is on the popular side of marginal issues, such as illegal immigration, that motivate small but intense groups of people.
In Kaine's poll, 20 percent of people ranked education as their top concern, 8 percent ranked illegal immigration as the most important issue, and 6 percent said the same of "moral values."
Just as good, from Kaine's perspective, is continued evidence of Gov. Mark R. Warner's popularity -- 69 percent said the governor is doing an excellent or good job, and 66 percent of Republicans said the state was going in the right direction.
Warner (D) has started a push to make those numbers translate into support for Kaine. In a fundraising letter mailed this week, Warner gushed about Kaine and used harsh language about Kilgore.
"From massive borrowing, to putting the entire budget on the ballot, to the economics of wishful thinking," Warner wrote to about 25,000 potential donors. Kilgore has "offered no real long-term solutions to the challenges we face. And now, as he runs for governor, he has promised to turn back the clock."
Warner was scheduled to campaign with Kaine this week and to hold the second of two major fundraisers, this time at the Omni Richmond Hotel. The goal: a half-million dollars or more for Kaine.
Kilgore advisers have long been worried about Warner's popularity but scoff at Kaine's public use of internal polling data.
Why, they ask, would Kaine break the cardinal rule of campaigning and reveal what his internal numbers show? Because, according to the Kilgore camp, Kaine is desperate to reassure donors and supporters in the face of numerous public polls that show him lagging.
There have been 15 public polls, major and minor, in the past year, and Kilgore has been leading in all but one -- a July Mason-Dixon poll that showed Kaine up by one point.
A Washington Post poll, taken Sept. 6 to 9, showed Kilgore with a four-point lead among registered voters and a seven-point lead among likely voters.
Releasing an internal poll showing Kaine ahead helps calm jitters among Kaine loyalists, Republicans said. In addition, they added, releasing a one-page summary doesn't give anyone -- reporters, the public or the opposition -- any chance to see the guts of the poll.
Kaine staff members said those comments are misleading or betray a misunderstanding of where the governor's race stands.
All the recent polls have shown the race to be very close, and several show Kaine, although behind, trailing by only a point. That contrasts, they said, with the polls from a year ago, which showed Kilgore with a lead of 5 to 10 percentage points.
That suggests that the momentum is on Kaine's side. He has spent the past year dragging himself up to about even, while Kilgore has hardly moved.
Far from reassuring donors and supporters, the Kaine polling memo could serve to reinforce the narrative arc of the campaign: that Kaine is slowly, and steadily, gaining. If that arc continues, Kilgore could have a very bad election night.