President Bush, flanked on both sides by servicemen in fatigues, began a speech on terrorism and the war in Iraq on Friday with a few thank-yous to Virginia leaders with front-row seats, including Sen. George Allen (R) and Rep. Thelma D. Drake, the local GOP congresswoman. Even the mayor -- a Democrat -- was acknowledged.
One politician who was nowhere near Chrysler Hall to wave to what would seem to be a friendly crowd was Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor, who is in a tight race with Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
Having a sitting president with similar views fly into town 11 days before Election Day would usually count as political gold, but not if the president's popularity has ebbed and scandals are dominating the news cycle.
Kilgore instead attended a luncheon in Richmond for the Virginia NAACP. The candidate's campaign aides have said that Bush's speech, which sounded a familiar message that the United States must be vigilant in fighting terrorism, was a policy address, not a political event.
It's a world away from the campaign for Richmond four years ago, when Republican Mark L. Earley could not get on President Bush's calendar for a last-minute personal appearance to lift his slumping candidacy. That was right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had lifted Bush to the highest approval ratings of his presidency.
Kilgore said what is happening in Washington is irrelevant in the commonwealth, calling it "national background noise on a Virginia stage."
He noted that Bush's approval ratings were soaring when Democrat Mark R. Warner was elected governor in 2001. "We're very much able to divide state politics from national politics. I think a lot of people nationally have been talking about it more than people in the state," Kilgore said after the Richmond event, referring to the Bush administration's problems.
If voters in this area are an indication, Kilgore could be right. Hampton Roads is a diverse region of 1.6 million people that is pivotal to both campaigns. It's an area of emerging, Republican-leaning suburbs with strong military identities and blue-collar cities -- some of Virginia's largest -- with strong black communities that tend to vote Democratic.
Les Smith, who sells security systems in Virginia Beach, heard the president's speech and said Bush has not made a strong enough case for why the war in Iraq is helping Americans. "But that won't affect my vote in Virginia," said Smith, 36, a Kilgore supporter who considers the candidate "close to the biblical or conservative worldview" he favors.
Virginians have shown an independent streak in electing state leaders from parties other than the president's. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Lyndon B. Johnson, but many Democrats have captured the governor's mansion.
Smith, like some other voters, said Kilgore may have hurt himself by passing up an appearance with the president.
"How can you not attend a function where the standard-bearer of your party is present?" asked David Spinazzola, an environmental consultant from Norfolk who heard the president's speech. "It's disrespectful." Spinazzola is supporting state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent.
Kaine held two campaign events in this region Friday, greeting supporters at a restaurant in Suffolk, then appearing at Virginia Beach's new convention center to receive endorsements from current and former mayors.
Asked about Kilgore's absence from the Bush speech, Kaine, who presents himself as the logical successor to Warner, said: "What I take away from it is, there's a big difference between how regular people are looking at the way we are doing things in Virginia and what people see as Washington-style politics.
"I do think Virginians look at national politics and they see indictments, they see challenges with ethics in Congress and they see a slow response to emergencies," he said. By contrast, in Virginia, "they see a state that four years ago had major problems" but has restored its fiscal health.
Warner, speaking in Richmond after the luncheon that Kilgore attended, went further, predicting that the bad news for the Bush administration would help his fellow Democrat on Nov. 8.
"If the contrast is between how things are going in Richmond versus how things are going in Washington, I think people will say, 'Let's keep the state path,' " the governor said.
On the other hand, the governor's race is not yet on the radar screen of some voters in Hampton Roads, who are closely following the president's fortunes but cannot distinguish Kaine from Kilgore.
"I'm not really following the governor's race," said Terry Maloney, 37, a Persian Gulf War veteran who works at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Norfolk. He's furious with Bush over the Iraq war. "We've lost 2,000 lives for nothing," he said.
As for his vote Nov. 8, he said: "I don't know a thing about the candidates. I know they're fighting a lot on television."
Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins in Richmond contributed to this report.