Among the issues dividing Democrats and Republicans in the campaigns for the House of Delegates this year, a single overarching theme has emerged: Which is the better party to handle the state's finances?
Democrats, riding high on poll numbers that show general support for the tax and spending plan Gov. Mark R. Warner spearheaded last year, say they helped him secure more money for public safety and education.
"Our theme is simple: 'Let's keep a good thing going,' " said House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond).
"I'd rather be us than them this year," he said.
Republicans, who hold 60 of the 100 House seats, say their program of abolishing the estate tax and eliminating the car tax over the coming years will mark the GOP as the party that can best handle pocketbook issues. Republican leaders also unveiled a proposal for a back-to-school tax holiday for school-related purchases.
"We've been in the majority for five years now," said G. Paul Nardo, chief policy adviser to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "It's important for voters to know that we are committed to governing with new and fresh ideas."
Students of Virginia politics said last year's lengthy budget debate has emboldened Democrats.
"Given the budget fight last year, the partisan equation has been somewhat altered," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
"Usually it's Republicans who run on these good-government, budget issues. But largely because of the way the Republicans handled the budget in 2004, Democrats are trying to make the case that they've done the job better."
Although all 100 seats in the House are up for election, many are so securely in the hands of Republicans or Democrats that they are uncontested. Each party has identified a handful of districts it hopes to turn in its favor, using some of these fiscal themes. In addition, each party is pushing plans to relieve traffic and to improve education and public safety.
The Republicans have lost four seats since hitting a high of 64 in 2001 and want to reverse the decline. Democrats are hoping to increase their 38 seats to at least 41. The House has two independents.
The Democrats are using fiscal responsibility as a theme in a pair of Northern Virginia contests against anti-tax Republicans. In western Fairfax County, they have sent former county School Board member C. Chuck Caputo against youth minister Chris S. Craddock, who defeated Del. Gary A. Reese in the June GOP primary.
Meanwhile, Democrat Dave W. Marsden will take on Republican Michael J. Golden for the seat left open by Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), who is retiring after 30 years in the House.
The Democrats are also targeting Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William), an anti-tax lawmaker whom they think they can beat with Board of County Supervisors member Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge), who is considered a moderate.
"I'm a middle-of-the-road person," Barg said. "That's what happened with Warner last year. It's about bipartisanship to balance a budget and keep our triple-A bond rating."
Republicans said that although they understand Warner is viewed as a popular governor, they are confident that his ability to help House candidates is limited.
"I still believe you're voting for this candidate or that candidate, not because Mark Warner is a good guy," said Nardo.
Frederick echoed that theme.
"I don't think that the constituents of my district care who my opponent's standing with," he said. "What they care about is who the candidates are and what they have done as individuals."
Meanwhile, other Republicans are trying to capitalize on seats that Democrats have left open. In the 37th House District, which includes Fairfax City and a portion of Fairfax County, former city mayor John Mason hopes to take back a seat for the GOP that most recently was held by Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D), who is stepping down.
Mason, a leader in regional transportation policy, has run a campaign touting his experience and the fact that he would be in the majority party and could have immediate influence on several key committees in the House, including transportation. He is running against Democrat David L. Bulova as well as Independent Green candidate Daniel W. Haugh and Libertarian B. Scott McPherson.
Republicans are also confident they can pick up the seat that will be vacated by Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D-Lancaster), who represents part of the Northern Neck. Their candidate is Robert J. Wittman, a popular Board of Supervisors chairman in Westmoreland County.