When comedian Jon Stewart asked columnist Pat Buchanan whom he planned to vote for on Nov. 2, Buchanan said, "It doesn't matter. I live in Virginia."

That summed up the situation pretty well.

Forty years of presidential predictability -- Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 was the last Democrat to scoop up Virginia's electoral votes -- dampens any reasonable expectation of a Virginia surprise.

It would be wrong, however, to assume too much about Virginia's political inclinations. Since 1976 the party that has lost the White House has won the Virginia governor's race the following year.

Virginia Democrats take heart in this evidence of voter independence, but it cuts both ways. Bill Clinton's successes in 1992 and 1996 were followed, respectively, by the winning campaigns of Republican governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore.

Still, the offsetting gubernatorial elections -- designed to insulate the commonwealth from the untoward and deleterious influence of national politics -- theoretically allow the Virginia Democratic Party to establish its own identity. But how?

Not by preaching the old-time religion of the haves and have-nots that fuels so many of the national party's enthusiasms, but by arguing for government expenditure in the prosaic, but coalition-assembling, terms of economic growth.

That has been the pattern since the early 1960s, when state leaders -- Democrats and Republicans alike, though there were few of the latter -- sought to improve Virginia's collective fortunes by using government gently to improve education and transportation funding.

Yes, state money would go to bolster mental health services and Medicaid, but the rationale for state action was nearly always to promote economic growth -- the greatest social program yet devised, according to Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. Republican Allen echoed that sentiment in his 1994 inaugural address.

Shrewd fellow, Allen. He emphasized economic growth as much as any of his predecessors, while playing down the Democrats' good stewardship of the budget. They spent too much, Allen loudly declared, before going out and spending more.

It was only when Republicans figured -- wrongly -- that they could it do all by cutting taxes and increasing spending simultaneously that an opening appeared for Democrats to reestablish themselves. When a receding national economy combined with Gilmore's financial bungling to shortchange basic state commitments, Democrat Mark Warner, a business executive who had never held political office, stressed his management skills and won the governorship.

He's still at it. Warner likes to remind audiences that although he inherited a fiscal mess, he believes in public efficiency and high credit ratings. His office regularly pumps out announcements about job-creating new business developments, and if the local chamber of commerce needs a speaker, Warner is there in a jiffy.

Warner even appears to be enjoying what he's doing, something the Republicans would like to quash. Too often, however, the Republicans spend more time looking back in anger than forward with constructive or even relevant alternatives.

Case in point: Last week Republicans moved to tarnish Warner's image for managerial acumen with some contrived outrage. They trotted out the state auditor, who dutifully dinged the governor for transferring funds, without legislative authorization, to cover executive staff and office expenses.

The practice, begun under Warner's Republican predecessor, involved a relatively small amount of money, and the governor's people pledged to fix it. But that didn't mollify the pugnacious Republicans, including Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), who started barking that Warner had unleashed an Enron-like scandal on the commonwealth.

You have to know Wardrup, a retired salt, to appreciate this. Wardrup barks a lot. So much so, according to one wit, that he should have a parrot on his shoulder to shout obscenities at passersby.

Wardrup chairs the House Transportation Committee, and while he was busy expressing his indignation, state officials were gathering at the Virginia Transportation Conference in Roanoke to announce that the state would run out of road-building money in 2014.

Barbara Reese, chief financial officer for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the demands of maintenance, debt service and normal operations will far outpace revenue. She figured that during the next 20 years, Virginia will have 1.9 million more jobs (and commuters) and a population of 9 million -- 2 million more than in 2000. The number of vehicles is projected to increase by 3 million.

"And we have no money. Thank you," Reese said.

Phil Shucet, who heads VDOT, then spoke about how traffic congestion compromises health care, education and public safety. If a given human activity involves "getting there," in other words, insufficient transportation funding makes that a lot harder.

Some 70 percent of working parents say they don't have enough time with their children, 63 percent of couples say they don't have enough time with their spouses and 55 percent of working adults say they don't have enough time for themselves, says Shucet. Maybe we should do something about that, he adds.

That almost sounds like a campaign theme in the works. Or, at the least, the semblance of a bid by Virginia Democrats to once again position themselves as the level-headed agents of a better future.

A squawking parrot on the other side is just what they need to make their case.

The writer was a speechwriter for former Virginia Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. His e-mail address is gcmorse@cox.net