"I told it exactly the way it was, and I gave it my best shot," Russ Potts says. Then he realizes he's using the wrong tense for a candidate for governor of Virginia just a week before the election.
Potts, a Republican state senator from Winchester who's running as an independent, quickly adds that he's not yet officially conceding that his long-shot bid has flopped. But his shoulders are slumped, his voice is down, and his words flit from quiet admissions of failure to bitter cuts at his opponents -- especially Jerry Kilgore.
Here's one aimed at the GOP candidate: "All of a sudden, Kilgore is Mr. Death Penalty because he has to take your mind off the fact that he has no transportation plan, no education plan. His administration would be dominated by social issues while everything else deteriorates."
And another: "With Jerry Kilgore, you're going to have to crater one of the best higher education systems in the country."
Potts eagerly piles on the criticisms of Kilgore, whose campaign he calls cynical and dishonest. He all but outright endorses Democrat Tim Kaine. "I can't do that," Potts says, and then he smiles and does what he can do: He hits Kilgore again.
In the campaign's waning days, Potts woke up before dawn to drive in to Washington for a quick interview on Channel 9's morning show; getting any time on Washington TV is tough for Virginia candidates, so Potts happily withstands hours of traffic from Winchester to Tenleytown. On TV, The Question, inevitably, is asked: Do you really think you have a chance to win?
"If the White Sox can win the World Series," replies Potts -- in a former life, a vice president of said White Sox -- "then Russ Potts can win for governor of Virginia."
Except that the White Sox payroll is $74 million and Potts is trying to win with $1.5 million. Plus, the Sox have name recognition. Potts doesn't, despite the corny "We Want Potts" TV ads featuring Virginians banging kitchen pots (now that's elevating the debate).
For all his efforts, Potts has sat consistently at 4 percent in the polls. With Tuesday's outcome pretty much a tossup between Kilgore and Kaine, Potts's name hardly appears in any sentence without the word "spoiler."
While Potts hammered away on roads, education and health care, the campaign morphed into a battle of slick TV spots and rehearsed one-liners about the death penalty, abortion and gay adoption.
"No election should be about God, guns, gays, abortion or illegal immigrants," Potts says. "We're all God's children."
Over coffee and a chocolate muffin at a breakfast joint near the TV studio, Potts removes his game face and begins the postmortem. "I knew it would be tough, but I had no idea it would be this tough," he tells me. "If we could have gotten $5 million, it would've put us on TV enough. To win, I'd have to have spent eight years running. But I have a life and a family and a little business. I'm not wealthy. The parties have this unbelievable fundraising machinery. You can't compete with that."
Potts thought voters would prefer a guy who told it straight over a "totally orchestrated and scripted" campaign. He looked at our clogged roads and told Northern Virginians, "The only way you can ever fix this mess is with money, massive amounts of money."
The response was silence. We're going shopping now. How 'bout them Skins? Where can I find cheaper gas?
Potts grumbles over the campaigns Kilgore and Kaine have run. "You ever been to a funeral where the eulogy was all about how this man stopped this and impeded that and prevented something else? No! In life, you're defined by the things you're for, not the things you're against. But in politics these days, we get these one-dimensional figures. They're against taxes, period. The core reason we got where we are today is the caliber of people entering politics. There are no more Alan Simpsons coming in," he says, recalling the refreshingly frank retired senator from Wyoming.
"Why can't we look people in the eye and say this is what we have to fix, and this is how we're going to pay for it?"
A minute later, he slips back into the past tense about his own campaign. And then he catches himself and adds, "Can't say that till it's over on Tuesday."
The straight talker in this race is throwing curves, but his target is clear: "Jerry Kilgore would be the most horrible governor in my lifetime."
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