IT IS SURPRISING, in a way, that Virginia's race for governor between Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Jerry W. Kilgore is as close as it is, with polls showing the candidates virtually tied ahead of Tuesday's vote. By and large, Virginians are pleased with Gov. Mark L. Warner, who is barred by law from running for reelection, and surveys suggest a large majority believes the state is on the right track. Mr. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, would continue most of Mr. Warner's sensible policies, while Mr. Kilgore, the former attorney general, is likely to reverse key ones. That should give Mr. Kaine the edge. But in a Republican-tilting state, the candidates are running neck and neck. Whatever their party affiliation, Virginians of the political center should bear in mind that Mr. Kaine offers a path forward, while Mr. Kilgore represents a return to the past.

We say that not so much because of Mr. Kaine's platform, with its artfully split hairs and intricate nuance. Rather, we look to Mr. Kaine's record -- specifically, to his gutsy support for Mr. Warner's 2004 tax overhaul. That took courage, and it led to his being labeled a tax-loving liberal in the current campaign. But it was the right decision, boosting Virginia's public schools and putting the state on sound fiscal footing. And it gives us confidence that Mr. Kaine has the flexibility and sound judgment to make tough calls. By contrast, Mr. Kilgore, who makes much of his "predictability," would quite predictably choose ideology over pragmatism, reversing Mr. Warner's levelheaded course.

Lest we forget, Virginia's past is not a very appealing prospect. Mr. Warner's immedi- ate predecessor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, wedded to his anti-tax slogans, made irresponsible promises, starved the state of revenue and left a fiscal disaster zone. Mr. Warner, a businessman elected on the strength of his credentials as a pragmatist, had to clean up the mess. That he did, helped along the way by Mr. Kaine and harassed by Mr. Kilgore. And now comes Mr. Kilgore, in a sunnier economic season, preaching the Gilmore gospel that Virginians can have it all. It's a pipe dream.

Mr. Kilgore's stance is particularly irresponsible when it comes to the state's clogged transportation network, which is badly in need of fresh revenue; without it, the available funding for the state's roads will cover only maintenance by the end of this decade. Mr. Kilgore, sworn enemy of new taxes, can be relied on to sit on his hands -- or just say no -- if lawmakers act ambitiously to address the problem. Mr. Kaine is a better bet to help find a fix.

This race isn't a hard call. Mr. Kilgore is a pleasant fellow, down to earth and politically shrewd. But the bottom line is what he represents: old-style, doctrinaire, unimaginative, cramped governance that would leave the state stalled in neutral, at best. Mr. Kaine -- forthright, proactive, inclusive, brimming with energy -- is a far better candidate possessed of much clearer vision. He alone has the potential for excellence.