'Twas a memorable career move. Character actor James Anderson just had to lean over the balustrade of the Maycomb County courthouse set and snarl at Gregory Peck (aka Atticus Finch), "What kinda man are you?"

Even now, Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell -- Anderson's marvelously malevolent depiction of Harper Lee's white-trash character in her novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" -- stands out as a cinematic high point of loathsomeness, the lout who objected to Finch's legal representation of an accused man.

Maybe that's what Jerry W. Kilgore thought. Maybe the Republican candidate for Virginia governor figured he needed one more heavily juiced "What kinda man are you" directed at his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine.

Hand it to Kilgore, though. Ewell never thought to inject Adolf Hitler into the conversation. It took Kilgore to see that Der Fuehrer could be useful in 2005 in framing the death penalty issue. Kaine wouldn't even execute that guy? Man, that's a liberal.

It has been suggested that Kilgore went a tyrant too far, given the adverse public reaction to his death penalty ploy. But for the Kilgore wing of the Virginia GOP, such death penalty maneuvers constitute old-time religion.

The Supreme Court allowed Virginia to reinstate its death penalty in 1981, and the commonwealth runs second only to Texas in making the most of the opportunity. In more recent years, however, new categories of capital crime have been proposed with each annual legislative session, and Kilgore has favored them all. Kilgore understands that every "red" light that appears on legislative voting boards in opposition to a death penalty proposal represents a potentially self-inflicted electoral wound. Reason, in this matter, has no role.

So even when some people found the Hitler reference jarring, Kilgore didn't flinch. When he appeared last Sunday on a Norfolk TV station's interview program, the host asked him, "Did you think the Hitler reference would be offensive to some people . . . because I've heard that."

And he would have heard that because he, Joel Rubin, the host of the program, is president of Norfolk's Temple Israel.

"Absolutely not," replied a grinning Kilgore.

There may have been more method here than suspected. The Hitler dust-up tended to obscure other, more lethal venom prepared by Kilgore's campaign: the specter of the immigrant outside your door.

This was the year for the Virginia GOP to walk over homosexuals to a campaign victory. The "sanctity of marriage" defense had been primed with rhetoric and more than a dozen bills, resolutions and constitutional amendments proposed during the 2005 legislative session.

Somewhere along the way, though, the gay initiative got dumped in favor of defending Virginia's border with Mexico (no, really, it's out there somewhere). So last week Republican members of the House announced a series of initiatives for the 2006 legislative session directed at illegal immigration and filling the "void" left by an insufficiently aggressive federal government. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) was front and center, as were Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William), but it took Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico) to get to the heart of the thing. "I don't want them here," he said.

Given that Virginia harbors an estimated 200,000 "thems," this could prove an expensive undertaking. But Kilgore has described the situation -- involving rampant landscaping, poultry plucking and nail-pounding -- as a "growing crisis," and GOP lieutenant governor candidate William T. "Bill" Bolling, judging from his campaign ads, appears poised to join the Minutemen.

"What about 'illegal' doesn't Tim Kaine understand?" Kilgore demands in his commercials. Were Kaine to get down to that level, he would probably respond, "The part where Republican families, Republican business owners and Republican contractors pay them to be here."

Kilgore is a natural at this stuff. Ten years ago, while serving as Virginia's secretary of public safety, he assured audiences that throat-slashing felons would be running the streets if big money didn't go into new prisons.

It was a logical and factual absurdity, but then so are Kilgore's assurances that new roads can be built without new state money, that property tax reductions can be achieved without affecting local services, that tuitions can be contained without additional state support of higher education, that referendums will make for a functional substitute for legislative action and that peace will reign in the valley if we just get the Hispanics out of Herndon.

Come Tuesday night, should Kilgore find himself still standing, he'll likely think that the cracker campaign tactics he employed soon will be forgiven. He shouldn't count on it. Right about then Virginians may begin asking, "What kinda man are you?"

gcmorse@cox.net