This year's contest for governor of Virginia is being viewed as almost everything except a contest for governor of Virginia.
It's said to be a test of the political impact of President Bush's growing unpopularity, of the wide popularity of incumbent Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and of the political skills of George Allen, the state's ambitious Republican junior senator.
Well, yes, the Bush factor will be much studied, and it will be worth noticing if Warner helps elect Tim Kaine, the state's Democratic lieutenant governor, or if Allen gets Republican Jerry Kilgore, the former attorney general, across the finish line.
But the election is between Kaine and Kilgore, and the most important national implications of November's voting will grow from issues -- in particular, the death penalty and sprawl -- that the two men are raising themselves.
If Kilgore wins on the basis of a truly scandalous series of advertisements about the death penalty, it will encourage Republicans all over the country to pull a stained and tattered battle flag out of the closet.
Kaine is a Roman Catholic who opposes the death penalty. "My faith teaches life is sacred," he says. "I personally oppose the death penalty." I cheer Kaine for being one of the few politicians with the guts to say this the way he does. It's disturbing that faith-based political stands that don't point in a conservative direction rarely inspire the church-based political activism that, say, abortion, arouses. Maybe some of the churches will examine their consciences.
But Virginia has a death penalty on the books, so Kaine says plainly: "I take my oath of office seriously, and I'll enforce the death penalty."
That's not good enough for Kilgore. You have to read much of the ad he ran on this issue to believe it. In the commercial, Stanley Rosenbluth, whose son Richard and daughter-in-law Becky were murdered, declares:
"Mark Sheppard shot Richard twice and went over and shot Becky two more times. Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the person who murdered my son. He stood with murderers in trying to get them off death row. No matter how heinous the crime, he doesn't believe that death is a punishment. Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times. . . . I don't trust Tim Kaine when it comes to the death penalty, and I say that as a father who's had a son murdered."
Rosenbluth has every right to his rage, and all of us empathize with his loss. What can't be justified is the exploitation of someone else's emotion for the crassest of political purposes, or the underlying message of the ad.
Representing death row inmates is unpopular but essential because it allows the justice system to work -- and that includes finding guilty people guilty. Challenging prosecutors to make sure the wrong people aren't executed can actually be a service to crime victims. No one wants an innocent person put to death so the guilty party can remain at large to kill again.
Then there was that astounding Hitler reference. What does Hitler, who is thoroughly dead, have to do with the future of Virginia? When a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch asked Kaine about the death penalty and Hitler, Kaine struggled with what is the hardest case of all for capital punishment's opponents. "God grants life, and God should take it away," Kaine said as part of a lengthy and somewhat indeterminate answer. "[Do] horrible, heinous things deserve incredible punishment? You bet."
Kaine was conflicted over this difficult hypothetical, and why not? I respect him for not giving the easy, political answer -- which, I confess, I would have been tempted to give: make an exception for Hitler, put him to death, next question.
Kilgore, under fire for the ridiculous death penalty ads, moved on this week to other issues. So did Kaine. He is trying to win over previously Republican voters in Northern Virginia's rapidly growing Prince William and Loudoun counties by offering localities more tools to regulate development.
"We can't just tax and pave our way out of traffic," Kaine says. "I'll give your community more power to stop out-of-control development that increases traffic." Note the conservative side of the anti-sprawl message: Kaine is talking about the limits of taxing and spending, and about the importance of local control. Sprawl is one of those issues with the potential to scramble existing political alliances.
So, yes, the Virginia governor's race has national implications. It is a contest between backward-looking wedge politics and forward-looking problem solving. My hunch is that Virginia's voters know this.