The White House announced Friday that President Bush will hold an election-eve rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore (R) here Monday night, which Republicans hope will give him a final boost in his battle with Democrat Timothy M. Kaine.
"This is nothing short of a huge coup to have the president come in right before the election," said Frank Atkinson, a Republican consultant and a senior adviser to Kilgore's campaign.
Democrats said they were surprised by the move and believe it will help Kaine by giving people who are dissatisfied with Bush a reason to vote against Kilgore. The president's popularity has declined sharply in Virginia since last November, when he defeated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), 54 percent to 45 percent, in the state.
"If I were those guys, the last thing I'd want to do is nationalize this election," Kaine said in an interview. "It's sure going to juice up our people."
Last week, Kilgore did not attend a Bush speech in Norfolk on terrorism, a move that was widely viewed as a snub. Democratic Party Chairman C. Richard Cranwell said, "They are still hiding the president. He's going to sneak into Richmond in the dark of night?"
The Monday rally, which will be at the Dominion Resources hangar at Richmond International Airport, means the last day of campaigning will be one of contrasting stand-ins for the candidates: Bush vs. Warner. Warner will be holding several rallies for Kaine that day, including one in Richmond. Warner called the Bush visit "a little curious."
Kaine said he welcomes Bush's rally and predicted it will "be enormously helpful to us" by motivating his supporters more than it will motivate Kilgore voters.
"At the end of this election, Virginians will see me standing up with Mark Warner, and they will see Jerry Kilgore standing up with George Bush," Kaine said. "They'll get to ask the question: Which is being better run, Virginia or the nation?"
Kilgore and Kaine are locked in an extremely close race. A Washington Post poll conducted Oct. 23 through 26 shows Kaine ahead by three percentage points. Other polls also show a tight race. Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent, is receiving less than 5 percent in most polls.
Kaine campaigned in Northern Virginia on Friday. He joined radio host Mark Plotkin on WTOP radio and then campaigned in Shirlington and elsewhere in Arlington County before attending a reception with Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in Alexandria.
Kilgore spent the day with U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.) at rallies in Chesterfield, Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Martinsville.
Both candidates planned to crisscross the state this weekend in the final days of a campaign that has included bitter exchanges on television and radio for months. On Friday, the Kaine campaign was fined $100 for violating the state's "Stand By Your Ad" law in a campaign mailing.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush moved up his return from Panama, where he is finishing a Latin America swing, to appear at the rally Monday. He had been scheduled to return to Andrews Air Force Base at 8:05 p.m., she said. The rally is scheduled to start at 8 p.m., and tickets are required, Kilgore officials said.
The decision to bring Bush in for the rally reflects a desire to motivate die-hard Republicans, who still support the president strongly, to turn out to vote Tuesday, according to Virginia Republicans.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Kilgore campaign, said, "We're thrilled to have the support of the leader of the free world. The night before the election is the best time to have him in and fire up our voters."
But political observers said the effort could backfire.
"This tells me the Kilgore camp is really worried about the need to energize his base, and that can't be good," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of politics at George Mason University. "This is a real gift to the Kaine candidacy. They can now tie the fortunes of the Bush presidency, such as they are, to the Kilgore campaign."
Robert E. Denton Jr., a Virginia Tech professor of political communication, said he was surprised "because I think clearly it is a risk. Certainly if you didn't need him, you wouldn't bring him in."
The president's poll numbers have been sagging nationally and in Virginia. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published Friday and based on a nationwide survey reported negative ratings on the economy and terrorism and suggested that a majority of Americans for the first time question the president's integrity.
In The Post poll on the governor's race, 70 percent of Virginia voters say they think the state is going in the right direction, and nearly two-thirds say the country is seriously off on the wrong track.
Polls in Virginia will be open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.