Second-guessing usually takes place after Election Day. But let's start now.
When Campaign 2005 ends Nov. 8, two of the three men vying for governor will look back at the past year and wonder: What did I do wrong?
In truth, of course, the answer might be "nothing." But that won't keep the losing candidates and their supporters from casting about for explanations.
Here are some possible areas of inquiry for Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who's running as an independent.
If Kaine loses, Democrats will have good reason to wonder why. In many ways, the environment couldn't be better for a Democrat this year. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) is exceptionally popular, voters overwhelmingly think Virginia is headed in the right direction, and the national Republican Party is mired in controversy and scandal.
So here are some questions Democrats might ask themselves Nov. 9 if Kaine loses:
1. Did Warner do enough? By some measures, Warner has done more for Kaine than most governors do for their proteges. He has taped an ad. He travels with Kaine about once a week now, and he enthusiastically talks about him regularly. But he reserved much of that gusto until the past couple of months, leaving some voters to wonder why Warner ads weren't running this summer.
2. Should Kaine have embraced more money for transportation? The surprise endorsement of Kilgore by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which has long supported higher taxes for roads, suggests the answer might be yes. But Kaine was so afraid of being labeled a tax-and-spend liberal that he repeatedly said taxes were off the table until road money was locked up by an amendment to the state constitution.
3. Could he have done a flip-flop on the death penalty? Kaine says he opposes the death penalty but would uphold executions as governor because that's the law. So why not simply say he has changed his mind, and now supports capital punishment? It doesn't make much difference to those on death row, and it would have been far simpler to explain.
If Kilgore loses in a state that seems perpetually primed for Republican rule, his supporters will want to know why. Sure, the environment's not great for Republicans, but Kilgore has been preparing for this job for more than a decade. And this is still a conservative state, right?
Here are a few questions the Kilgore camp might ask:
1. Was he too negative? The death penalty ads that began running recently were brutal in their tone and message. Did they go too far? Was there a backlash among people who saw them as unfair? And, in particular, did the reference to Adolf Hitler cross a line?
2. Should he have debated Potts? Kaine's campaign used Kilgore's refusal to debate Potts as a prime example of the Republican's lack of leadership. Kilgore's debating skills turned out to be okay: He held his own in two of the three major debates. So might he have avoided the months of criticism if he'd given in to one three-way debate?
3. Why not answer the hypothetical? Kilgore's refusal to say whether he would sign a bill banning abortion tripped him up in the second debate. But it also cost him support among his conservative base, which was looking for some evidence that Kilgore was one of them. Sure, polls suggest that most people favor keeping abortion legal, but most people probably assume he'd sign an abortion ban anyway, so why not say so?
The single question for Potts really is: Was he deluding himself?
If he loses, that could be the question he asks himself. It's probably the question that Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and most other third-party candidates ask.
In a political system geared toward a two-party contest, can someone ever really crash the party?
Of course. Jesse Ventura did it in Minnesota; so did Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in Connecticut. And Potts had the help of people who advised both of them.
But Potts has had trouble raising money and has been stuck at the bottom of the polls. It would be natural on Nov. 9 for Potts to wonder whether it could ever have been different.
For all three men, Nov. 8 will almost certainly be the end of a journey.
Kaine has said he has no future ambition beyond governor; Kilgore, too, according to aides. And Potts is likely nearing the end of a Senate career.