Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine is asking voters to think about the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina as they evaluate him and his opponents in the Nov. 8 election on the most mundane of political topics: their management skills.
Gingerly at first, and lately with more gusto, Kaine is making the hurricane's aftermath an issue in the final weeks of the 2005 campaign. In speeches and advertisements, Kaine is betting that voters are ready to care more about how a governor actually governs.
"We have all watched on television the last month or so, and we've all seen the consequences of poor management," Kaine said in a speech to donors last week. "We've all seen the difference that management can make. It's not just about boring details. Management can be life or death."
Kaine touts his experience as "a mayor, running a city," and his job as second-in-command to a governor widely praised for his businesslike management.
Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, Kaine's principal opponent, replies that he, as secretary of public safety and attorney general, has actually had experience running a state response to natural disasters.
Talking about the nuts and bolts of what a governor does each day has rarely been a winning political strategy. Former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis found in 1988 that while touting his competence as a state leader helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination, it was hardly a path to victory.
But experts in political management say the failures of state, local and federal governments to respond to the destruction caused by Katrina -- witnessed on television -- could make voters more eager to hear from Virginia's candidates how they would run the state.
"It's the unusual circumstance that puts an unusual spotlight on the role of the governor," said Dennis W. Johnson, the associate dean at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "I think that this is going to have a lot of impact."
It is the second election in a row that Virginia's candidates for governor have been faced with responding to a national tragedy late in their campaigns. Four years ago, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the state campaign temporarily halted.
In a debate 10 days after the attacks that marked the return of active politics, Democrat Mark R. Warner and Republican Mark L. Earley clashed over who had the skills to govern the state in troubled and dangerous times.
Warner quickly unveiled a $15.5 million plan to revamp the state's emergency operations center, and Earley pledged to improve its communications network, build new police facilities and increase funding for anti-terrorism initiatives.
This year, less than two weeks after Katrina hit, Kaine proposed a "citizen alert network" to inform people of disasters through text messages on their cell phones. He also called for improving evacuation routes and creating an emergency relief fund to offer post-disaster assistance.
Kaine has begun airing two advertisements on radio stations in Virginia's African American neighborhoods that mention the hurricane. In one, the announcer says: "If Hurricane Katrina has taught us anything, it is that we need leaders who care about all people, black and white, rich and poor, young and old."
And in his talk to high-dollar donors Wednesday night, Kaine predicted that, because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, voters no longer believe management is "kind of boring, kind of technical, about details, about budgets."
Kaine frequently mentions a Governing magazine study that last year declared Virginia the best-managed state in the nation under Warner.
"Americans know today, and Virginians know today, how very, very important 'best-managed state' is," Kaine said Wednesday.
Kilgore mentions the storm less frequently, although he sometimes reminds listeners that, as public safety secretary in the mid-1990s, he helped manage the state's response to floods, fires and other natural disasters.
"I can tell you from experience that when times are the worst, when hurricanes, floods and blizzards threaten life and property, the law enforcement members of Virginia are at their best," Kilgore told police officers at an event Friday morning.
Kilgore's aides scoff at Kaine's repeated references to the storm, and they predict that the Democrat would use disaster planning as an excuse for getting more money from taxpayers. "We've seen him use every facet of life in Virginia, including the potential for natural disasters, as a call for higher taxes," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
At a debate with Kaine on Friday, Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent, used the prospect of a potential emergency to highlight Kilgore's refusal to debate him, a sign he wouldn't perform well under pressure.
"Imagine Mr. Kilgore in an emergency situation, in which he had to address the citizens of Virginia after a catastrophe or after a terrorist attack," Potts said. "This is a lack of leadership."
Barbara Kellerman, research director for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said it is easier for voters to imagine a governor dealing with a disaster in Virginia because of the many images of Louisiana's Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the other Gulf state governors during the past month.
"The efficacy of all executives at all levels of government was so miserable," Kellerman said. "That matters."
She said that even before the hurricane, the voting public was beginning to demand leaders who also are good managers. President Bush, for example, was elected in 2000, in part because of his credentials as the first MBA president, she said.
But she said the "embarrassingly bad managerial debacle" in responding to the hurricane is likely to encourage an even greater desire on the part of voters for a skilled manager at the helm of state, local and federal government.
"We are in a moment in time, where there are people out there in corporate America who are really good managers," Kellerman said. "The idea that our politicians are not part of that larger group is particularly distressing."
At a mid-September debate between Kaine and Kilgore in Fairfax County, the first question from moderator Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," was aimed at eliciting specifics from the candidates.
"As governor, what would be your precise evacuation plan for Northern Virginia?" Russert asked. "And please take into mind the number of people who live below the poverty line and the number of households that do not have automobiles that live in this area."
Neither candidate answered Russert, choosing instead to talk generally about leadership qualities.
"I understand how to respond to an emergency," Kilgore said. "We'll pre-position assets, making sure that the National Guard, food and water is in place before the storm gets there. We'll make sure that we enter a state of emergency prior to the storm hitting so that we'll be prepared."
Kaine responded that a governor has to be "willing to act decisively. I was a mayor dealing with hurricanes, the Y2K program. I had to deal with the effect of natural disaster on our city."
Kaine and Kilgore pledged a greater investment in roads and transit that could help ease an evacuation but have not said specifically how they would finance those projects. Potts has called for increasing taxes by up to $2 billion a year to pay for new transportation projects.