The drill for his countless conversations at the Republican National Convention goes like this, said Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, an easygoing 43-year-old lawman from southwest Virginia's coal and corn-pipe country.
He starts with an introduction, or maybe it's time to get reacquainted. He talks about how Democratic claims of beating President Bush in the Old Dominion are so much hot air.
"Then we move into the fact that it's no real secret or surprise about my interest in 2005," when Virginia and New Jersey will be the only states with governor's races, Kilgore says. With a little luck and even more charm, the Republican adds, "we usually walk away with a commitment to come to Virginia and help out, or cards to be added to the list of people willing to host events."
Like a debutante at a four-day coming-out party, Kilgore has arrived in New York ready to see and be seen. The objective: to boost his status from front-runner for the 2005 gubernatorial nomination to inevitable victor.
For candidates seeking statewide office, national conventions are not all handshakes, grins and a few words at delegation breakfasts. Tuesday afternoon, for example, involves a mini-course in how to ask rich people for money.
Kilgore, who speaks with a soft, twangy, mountain drawl, signed up for the seminar offered by Bush-Cheney campaign donors in the Plaza Hotel, "Building Effective Business Coalitions: What You Can Do Between Now and Election Day." The point: to learn how to get the power brokers, money bundlers and corporate patrons on your side.
It's not that he really needed the lesson. In 48 hours, Kilgore chatted up Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, head of the Republican Governors Association, which will dole out millions next year to the New Jersey and Virginia races; and rubbed shoulders with U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.
On Tuesday, Kilgore will mingle with about 500 top fundraisers invited to a Four Seasons Hotel reception featuring former president George H.W. Bush. Also this week are events by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"That all just helps our image; it helps Virginia to be in contact with so many people in the nation," said Kilgore, in between talking to reporters from across the state.
Kilgore's team has had this week circled on the calendar for months. Though he has raised $3.4 million, a bit more than Democratic rival Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, and claims support from 81 of 87 Republican and independent state legislators and both of the state's U.S. senators, Kilgore is not well known outside Richmond and his thinly populated home county. Even after winning 60 percent of the vote in 2001, he remains a blank slate for many.
His other major challenge is a Virginia party on the brink of civil war over a $1.4 billion tax increase, pushed through a Republican-controlled General Assembly by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). In the aftermath, Kilgore has had to restate his credentials as a no-new-taxes Republican, limiting his appeal to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads business leaders and moderate voters. Even so, the attorney general has had trouble quieting reports of a rift with the GOP right.
Since January, former Republican governor James S. Gilmore III has revived his profile as a champion of anti-tax conservatives and has pointedly kept his options open to run for governor again or the U.S. Senate. Reporters took note when Gilmore said the attorney general had not yet asked for, or received, his endorsement this year. But Gilmore said Kilgore called him a couple of weeks ago, and the pair talked here Sunday.
"I think Jerry is doing fine and is ably running for governor," said Gilmore, who is staying at the Four Seasons in New York apart from Virginia delegates but is participating in events. "But the state of the party is not good, and that is because of the divide over the tax issue and the breakaway Republicans who have made common cause with Mark Warner and the Democrats."
Gilmore declined to discuss his plans for next year beyond a focus on work and business opportunities, but said, "The candidates who want to hold the line against tax increases and stop the abuse of taxpayers certainly will have my sympathy and have my support."
Meanwhile, the ghost of a 2002 wire-tapping scandal that brought down the state party's executive director lingers. Kilgore announced this month that he will voluntarily testify in a lawsuit brought by state Democrats against Republicans who eavesdropped on a sensitive party teleconference.
Kilgore distinguished himself, helping trigger the criminal investigation when he told an aide who learned of the breach to report it to state police. Still, his role in the civil case has created an impression of vulnerability, just as the tax fight has slowed his march to unify the party.
"He's got an absolutely solid base of support all through the party," said Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), who delivered an early endorsement. "And now he's got to . . . fight for the middle ground."