Sen. George Allen rallied fellow Virginia Republicans to his 2006 reelection campaign Saturday, telling them that he would stand for low taxes, energy independence and opposition to "activist judges" on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Allen, who is widely thought to be considering a presidential bid in 2008, also told the state party activists gathered for an annual conference that they must stand behind "common-sense Jeffersonian conservative principles" that have helped propel the GOP in national and state elections.
A month after their loss in the governor's race, Republicans are looking optimistically to the next state campaign, with Allen as their star. Democrats have yet to find a strong candidate to oppose the senator, who unseated Charles S. Robb in 2000.
"We will try to motivate and inspire people for ideas, for goals, for a mission," Allen said of the campaign during a luncheon address before about 500 people at the Homestead resort. His speech focused more on national and international issues than on Virginia politics.
"Less taxation, less litigation, greater energy independence in this country. These are the foundational ideals that [Americans and Virginians] believe in."
Several other party leaders also spoke during the two-day conference. The Republicans called for unity and reaffirmation of conservative principles, even as they continued to assess last month's loss by GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore to Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
On Friday night, former governor James S. Gilmore III said that division over taxes was the chief reason for Kilgore's poor showing Nov. 8.
Gilmore, who campaigned for governor in 1997 by promising to eliminate the car tax, said the party needs to get back to unabashed support for lower taxes.
"We stand for promises made and promises kept," Gilmore said at a reception hosted by Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover), who will be inaugurated lieutenant governor in January. "We will be doomed to minority status if we do not."
Many Republicans believe that Kilgore ran a campaign too close to the political center and didn't criticize Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) enough for raising taxes last year.
Kilgore appeared at the conference Saturday to thank hundreds of activists and well-wishers, and he pledged his assistance in Allen's reelection.
"While this election is over, our fight must continue, because folks, there are still things worth fighting for," Kilgore told the luncheon crowd, which gave him standing ovations before and after his speech.
For Allen, a former governor, the stakes are high as he prepares to begin his 2006 reelection bid and a possible run for the presidency.
Party stalwarts said after Allen's speech that they are confident that although Democrats have succeeded in recent statewide elections, the senator will make a strong showing next November.
"He's going to make a statement with this race," said G. Paul Nardo, a former Allen speechwriter who is now chief aide to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "He's going to want to show that Virginia is a strong Republican state and use that for any plans he has for running for national office."
Political observers said that although Allen has a comfortable hold on his Senate seat, a strong bid by a Democrat could undermine his bid for the presidency.
"His longtime protege [Kilgore] was defeated for governor," said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "Does that mean that Allen's Senate seat is in jeopardy? Not particularly. But it's weakened him."
Democratic activists are excited that last month's results might give them momentum going into the 2006 campaign.
"Tim's victory was a blow to conventional wisdom in Virginia. . . . Tim showed that there's not only one way to win," said Kevin Griffis, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. "It's a good environment for Democrats right now. . . . Washington is a mess. We're going to have a good, credible candidate."
So far, however, Democrats have struggled to find anyone up to the task of challenging Allen.
Warner, the popular Democratic governor who leaves office in January, bowed out of contention in August, but he remains a potential candidate for president. Former state lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer's name was floated early this year, but at the time he said he was not interested.
"Warner and Kaine are looking. Both of them will be held responsible if Allen does not get a first-rate challenge," Sabato said. "It's in their interest to do so. And they know it. They want Allen to spend it all. But the key is getting a plausible challenger."