Because Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) enjoys high approval ratings, it is not surprising that Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) casts himself as Warner's heir apparent. But if this year's gubernatorial candidates are to be judged by their positions rather than their parties, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore is the governor's more logical successor.

Four years ago Warner won strong support in Northern Virginia by proposing a regional referendum on additional taxes for road construction. "The citizens of Northern Virginia want the right to vote locally on how to fund transportation, and I believe they should have that right," Warner said. "I believe that not all the wisdom resides with the politicians in Richmond."

This year, Kilgore is supporting voter referendums, while Kaine is arguing for keeping power concentrated in the capital. Subjecting tax proposals to voters demonstrates a "lack of leadership," Kaine says, but how does he figure that? A governor must demonstrate far more political skill to make a case before thousands of voters than he does to twist the arms of a few lawmakers over drinks at the Executive Mansion.

Warner was elected by selling himself as a fiscal conservative -- a claim he subsequently belied by proposing tax increases. But as disappointing as it is that Warner pushed for extravagant spending on existing programs, he at least largely resisted the Democratic compulsion to create lots of new social programs.

Kilgore is similarly disinclined; Kaine clearly is not. One of Kaine's campaign promises is to provide taxpayer-funded kindergarten for all 4-year-olds. But the parents of middle-class children already have shown themselves willing to pay for preschool; less-advantaged children are eligible for Head Start and subsidized day care. Why create an expensive solution for a nonexistent problem?

The most pressing concern among Northern Virginians is transportation, according to polls, and Kaine says he would not support new money for transportation until passage of a constitutional amendment banning the diversion of transportation dollars. That could mean no new transportation money until 2009.

Kaine's idea for relieving traffic congestion is to let local governments place greater limits on where individuals may live. With such limits, localities could stop development until roads are built to accommodate additional cars. But if all development stopped tomorrow, the roads still would remain crowded, and pushing development farther out and creating more sprawl won't improve the situation. Suppose Loudoun County decided to stop growth; developers then would build more housing in Charles Town, W.Va. And commuters still would travel through Loudoun on overburdened Route 7 and Route 9.

Illegal immigration is another significant problem in Northern Virginia. Last year Warner signed into law a measure prohibiting illegal aliens from receiving state benefits. Kilgore also would not reward individuals who are in Virginia illegally. "This is a nation built on the rule of law," he explains. "If the law is ignored or intentionally subverted, we will lose the basis for our entire society." Kaine says illegal immigration is a federal problem, meaning that he would be unlikely to address the issue as governor.

It is telling that Kilgore has been endorsed by groups that backed Warner four years ago, such as the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Realtors. The Northern Virginia Technology Council also endorsed Kilgore, as did the National Federation of Independent Businesses -- after a poll showed that 90 percent of its Virginia members backed Kilgore.

Business leaders backed Warner in 2001 because he billed himself as one of them. He promised to be a "new" Democrat -- more interested in economic growth than in social engineering and in the rights of gun owners more than the rights of criminals.

This year that description applies more to Kilgore than to Kaine, making the big question mark in this election whether principles will trump party.