If this were any other state, Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner probably would be riding his high job approval ratings to a lopsided reelection this fall.
But Virginia is the only state in the nation that automatically sends its governors packing after one term. And so this November, as they do every four years, Virginia voters will reinvent their state government and provide the rest of the nation an early glimpse at the current political mind-set.
"The voting trends all point Republican. But Mark Warner has shown there's a path to Democratic victory," said politics professor Mark J. Rozell, director of the Center for Public Policy at George Mason University. "People are talking about this as a genuine, competitive, two-party race that could go either way."
The candidates are two party stalwarts who started their campaigns for governor as Warner's term started and a maverick whose last-minute entry into the contest has tweaked the conventional political wisdom.
The Democrat is Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the former Richmond mayor who claims to be the heir to Warner's pro-business, centrist policy agenda. Kaine wants the Nov. 8 election to unofficially be the referendum on Warner that the constitution officially prohibits.
The Republican is former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, a lawyer from southwest Virginia who was part of the movement that brought the GOP back-to-back gubernatorial victories in the 1990s, as well as control of the legislature. A Kilgore win would reestablish the party's message of opposing tax increases and make Warner's victory in 2001 seem like a political aberration.
They are being shadowed by independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester with a sharp tongue and a shoestring campaign.
There are egos at stake besides those of the candidates. Warner and U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), who is strongly supporting Kilgore's campaign, are considered possible presidential candidates in 2008. Their supporters and detractors will read much into the results.
And political leaders are eyeing Virginia -- the only other governor's race this year is in New Jersey -- as a laboratory for issues that could shape the congressional midterm elections in 2006.
Republicans will be watching, nervously, for signs that rising gas prices, frustration with the Iraq war and President Bush's declining popularity will translate into trouble in future elections.
"Even if it doesn't result in a sea of voters going to the polls to take their anger out on the White House, what it may do is keep Republicans at home," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks state campaigns for the Cook Political Report. "That's a problem for them."
And Democrats, demoralized by their showing in the South in the 2004 presidential election, are searching for signs that Virginia may be changing in ways that could favor certain Democrats. Losing one of the few governor's seats Democrats still hold in the region could dash those hopes.
'Be Like Mark'
Although Warner is barred from reelection, he is not missing from the campaign.
Kaine intends to plaster Warner's face across television screens and on every piece of campaign literature. Voters will hear Warner on the radio and on automated phone calls. The two will be together Sunday for the traditional Labor Day swing that starts the fall campaign.
"I want to do all I can to help Tim," Warner said in an interview last week. "I think he will continue the bipartisan, fiscally sound approach we've taken."
A millionaire businessman with no record as an elected official to defend, Warner won four years ago by appealing to the center. He courted the National Rifle Association, spent years laying the groundwork for his campaign in rural Virginia and promoted such traditionally conservative issues as the death penalty.
In office, he slashed spending and signed bills protecting gun rights and restricting abortion. Last year, he joined moderate Republican legislators to push through a $1.5 billion tax increase to balance the state's shaky finances and pay for schools, health care and public safety.
Kaine's strategy is simple: Be like Mark.
In stump speeches and town hall meetings, Kaine brags about what he calls "the Warner-Kaine administration." Kaine reminds audiences that he supported Warner's "tax reform" efforts while Kilgore opposed them. His sentences often begin, "Mark and I . . . "
Campaign aides said Kaine's strategy involves more than just hoping that Warner's appeal rubs off. They said Kaine has offered a campaign platform designed to appeal directly to Warner supporters in both parties.
Like Warner, Kaine stresses fiscal responsibility and bipartisanship. He has proposed to spend $300 million for universal preschool but says he will phase it in over four years. He has called for higher pay for teachers but also tough evaluations. He proposed a 20 percent homeowner tax exemption but made it optional for local governments.
Even so, Kaine is not Warner, and it's unclear whether he can re-create the magic formula that gave Warner a small margin of victory over former attorney general Mark L. Earley four years ago.
Kaine was the mayor of Richmond for four years when Virginia's capital was struggling with violent crime, poor schools and crumbling infrastructure. Warner can provide little cover for Kaine when it comes to Kilgore's criticism of the city's problems.
And Kaine's positions on social issues are different, too.
As a lawyer, he defended death row inmates. On guns, he received an "F" from the NRA -- a far cry from Warner, who persuaded gun rights groups to stay neutral in the governor's race four years ago. Kaine said he is "morally" opposed to the death penalty and abortion but is willing to enforce the state's existing laws.
He said that his positions on abortion and capital punishment are rooted in his Catholic faith but that the oath of office he would take as governor also would be sacred. "I believe deeply in the morality of laws that we have," Kaine said in an interview last month.
Unfortunately for Kaine, Virginia has been trending Kilgore's way for two decades.
The state has voted for a Republican president in every election since 1968. The legislature, which once held just a handful of Republicans, now is solidly controlled by the GOP. And last year, Bush won the state by painting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as unacceptable to those who hold Virginia values.
Like Bush, Kilgore is aggressively seeking to expand the number of core voters in the party. Campaign aides said their chief target is what they call "lazy Republicans," who vote in presidential elections but not in the governor's race.
To do that, Kilgore is proposing a cap on home assessment increases and is promising to hold a referendum before raising taxes. He also is pushing a merit pay plan for teachers and a tax credit for school supplies.
Kilgore has also said the state faces an illegal immigration "crisis" and stepped into a contentious, long-running Northern Virginia battle to say he opposes using public money to build a center in Herndon for day laborers, some of whom are in the country illegally. Strategists in both parties wonder about the potency of the issue.
Like the president, Kilgore hopes to brand his opponent as an out-of-touch liberal. In particular, Republicans say they need to separate Kaine from Warner in the minds of voters with a mosaic of television ads about the death penalty, guns, abortion and taxes.
"It's a liberal instinct that you see if you look at his entire career," Kilgore said in an interview while campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley. "If I'm faced with a budget issue, my instinct is not going to be to raise taxes."
GOP operatives say they believe Kaine's record creates an "ammunition gap" that favors Kilgore in the race. Kaine's positions on abortion, the death penalty and guns all are difficult to explain and easy to exploit in a socially conservative state.
"He vigorously supported gun control and wanted the city of Richmond to start suing gun companies," an announcer intoned in a Kilgore radio ad this year.
The radio spots foreshadow what is coming. As of July 1, the last date for which campaign finance reports were available, Kilgore had nearly $5 million in cash, and he has had two months to continue fundraising.
But two things may rob Kilgore of the edge most Republicans enjoy, longtime political observers say: Warner's popularity and Bush's ratings, which have dropped to their lowest point of his administration.
The impact Bush's ratings will have on Kilgore is unclear, his aides said. But they worry that the president may not provide the boost he might have a year ago.
As for Warner, polls show that he is extremely popular in all regions of the state. His signature effort -- the 2004 tax increase that raised $1.5 billion for state services -- also enjoys majority support among Virginians.
"Virginians don't want to move back to the days when we couldn't get a budget, knee-deep in the red, when it was more about 'gotcha' politics all the time," Warner said.
That message could be devastating to Kilgore, unless he can convince Virginia's voters that Tim Kaine is no Mark Warner.
"He tells people he's the same kind of Democrat as Mark Warner," said Ken Hutcheson, Kilgore's campaign manager, who also ran Bush's campaign in Virginia. "But people know that Tim Kaine is the liberal and Jerry Kilgore is the conservative. That impression is pretty much sealed."
A Viable Threat?
Meanwhile, Potts is the wild card in Virginia's governor's race.
An irascible, unpredictable politician who decided in February to run as an independent, Potts has promoted gay adoption, has said he would raise gas taxes for new roads and favors abortion rights.
Such positions might appeal to Democratic voters. But Potts, a lifelong Republican and 13-year Senate veteran, is well known in his district for his past positions: fighting against abortion and promising lower taxes.
Kaine has embraced the Potts candidacy and has agreed to debate him several times. Kilgore has treated Potts like a pariah, refusing to debate and declaring his candidacy irrelevant.
In return, Potts has excoriated Kilgore, calling him "a coward" and denouncing his proposals as fiscally irresponsible.
Potts has raised little money, barely enough for a round of television ads in Northern Virginia.
In most polls, Potts barely registers.
Still, neither campaign knows quite what to make of him, and it's unclear whether anyone in Virginia -- which allows unlimited campaign contributions -- might step forward with enough last-minute cash to make his voice heard.
On Sept. 13, the three candidates will converge on Fairfax for what longtime Virginia politicians are predicting could be the most bizarre day of campaigning in the state's recent history.
Kaine and Kilgore will meet for the first televised debate at the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which excluded Potts. But moments after that debate ends, Potts and Kaine have agreed to meet in the same Tysons Corner hotel for a second debate without Kilgore, who has refused to attend.
What they say, how they say it and -- most importantly -- what Virginia voters think of it all will shape state politics for years.