Republican Jerry W. Kilgore is leading in the Virginia governor's race despite efforts by Democrat Timothy M. Kaine to tap widespread satisfaction with Gov. Mark R. Warner's performance, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Among all registered voters, Kilgore is ahead by 4 percentage points as the campaign enters its final two months. His lead widens to 7 percentage points among those most likely to vote.
Kilgore, a former attorney general, has cast himself as the perfect fit for a traditionally conservative state. The poll of registered voters shows he would receive 45 percent of the vote if the election were today.
Kaine, the state's lieutenant governor and a former mayor of Richmond, claims to be the natural heir to Warner's legacy as a centrist Democrat. But even though an impressive 76 percent of voters approve of the job Warner is doing, just 41 percent said they would vote for Kaine if the election were today.
Independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester, gets 5 percent, the poll shows.
"This is very good news," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. "But we are taking absolutely nothing for granted. We will run this campaign every day as if we are behind by 10 points."
Kilgore's strength is evident across Southwest, Southside and the Shenandoah Valley, and he has battled Kaine to a tie in Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. Kilgore also has a significant lead among men, among whites and among middle-class voters who make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year.
And Kilgore's lead suggests that Kaine is having a difficult time repeating the electoral magic Warner worked in 2001, when he defeated Mark L. Earley by, among other things, winning support in conservative, rural regions.
"Mark Warner's name is not on the ballot. Tim Kaine's is," Murtaugh said. "Tim Kaine is no Mark Warner."
Many of the independent voters who flocked to Warner's businessman-turned-politician campaign are not supporting Kaine this year. And among those who approve of the job Warner is doing, four in 10 say they intend to vote for Kilgore.
Neal Frazier, a Roanoke insurance agent, is one of those voters. He describes Warner as "a good governor" but is impressed with Kilgore. "He's more in tune with what the people want. He's more in touch," said Frazier, 45. "The Democrats have taken this way liberal swing."
Political observers say there is plenty of time for Kaine to close the gap. But the immediate task before him is more challenging than it was for his mentor.
In August 2001, Warner was leading Earley by 14 percentage points. That November, Warner won by 5 points, breaking the lock Republicans had held on state government through their control of both the governorship and the legislature.
In 1997, GOP candidate James S. Gilmore III rode anger about car taxes into the executive mansion. Four years earlier, Republican George Allen stressed parole abolition and welfare reform in his successful campaign.
Such dominant issues have yet to emerge this time. The poll shows that Virginia's electorate is not fixated on a single topic. As in past years, education tops the list of most important issues, but voters do not give either candidate a clear edge on that subject.
Both Kaine and Kilgore have been running for governor for years. Yet voters appear not to have formed strong opinions about either. Potts, who entered the race in February, is even less well known.
More than half of voters said they know "little" or "nothing at all" about Kaine, and a similar percentage said the same of Kilgore. More than four in 10 of those surveyed said they might still change their minds.
"Right now, basically, I'm at a point of confusion. I really don't know enough," said Wesley Fisher, 57, a federal worker who lives in Arlington County. "I know a lot more about Kilgore than I know about the Democrat."
A Republican Tilt
The poll, based on interviews with 1,036 self-described registered voters, including 571 likely voters, is good news for Kilgore, who appears to be benefiting from the state's Republican tilt, even as President Bush and the national party struggle.
In Virginia, where Bush won easily in his two elections, he appears to offer little help to the Republican nominee.
Just 47 percent of those surveyed in the poll said they approve of the job Bush is doing, and 52 percent of independents said they would be less likely to vote for Kilgore because of Bush's endorsement.
Bush attended a fundraiser for Kilgore in McLean this summer that raised more than $2 million, a Virginia record. Kilgore aides said Bush might make another campaign appearance, possibly in late October.
"If [Kilgore is] any kind of character like Mr. Bush, I definitely will not vote for him," said Mary Weston, 52, a former garment worker at a sewing factory in Lee County, at the western edge of Virginia.
Weston, who described herself as "mostly a Democrat, but sometimes an independent," said she will vote for Kaine. "I don't like Mr. Bush's war. I don't see any apparent reason for it. He is not a popular man around here at all."
In Northern Virginia, where Kaine strategists hope to do well, Kilgore's popularity in the outer suburbs is countering Kaine's support inside the Capital Beltway. Kilgore has a 10-point lead in the outer counties -- such places as Prince William, Loudoun and the western part of Fairfax County. Kaine is ahead by 29 percentage points in the inner suburbs: Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Falls Church and eastern Fairfax County.
But the poll also indicates that Kilgore has not succeeded in portraying Kaine as a liberal. Equal numbers of voters said the major-party candidates were likely to share their values, be honest, keep the state's economy strong and improve transportation. Neither is out of the mainstream, a majority said.
Kilgore advisers said voters should expect a barrage of television ads and mass mailings this month and next describing Kaine's positions on the death penalty, guns, immigration, taxes and abortion. Both campaigns will report next week that they have millions of dollars to spend before the Nov. 8 election.
Some of Kilgore's anti-Kaine messages have the potential to work better than others, the survey suggests.
Kilgore seems to be on the popular side of the debate about illegal immigration. Last month, he opposed the use of public money to build a center in Herndon where day laborers, even those in this country illegally, could assemble to get work. More than half of those surveyed said they agree with that position.
And nearly two-thirds agree with Kilgore that voters should be given the right to approve increases in the sales, income or gas tax in a statewide referendum.
If the poll offers sobering news for Kaine, it also signals that his basic strategy -- trying to ride Warner's coattails -- has potential.
Overall, Virginians are happy with their state government. Sixty-five percent say the state is headed in the right direction, and 83 percent believe the overall economy is good or excellent.
"Virtually everyone except Jerry Kilgore recognizes the success of the Warner-Kaine administration," said Kaine spokesman Mo Elleithee. "The more people focus on this race and focus on Tim Kaine's role in that administration, the better we are going to do."
Warner is more popular than any of the current candidates. He is viewed favorably by 69 percent of Virginia voters, outscoring his own Democratic Party by 16 percentage points and a political rival, Republican Sen. George Allen, by 11 points.
And it's not just Warner's personal popularity that could be hard to duplicate.
Warner's principal accomplishment -- a tax increase to raise $1.5 billion over two years for schools, health care and other services -- is broadly supported despite a dislike of tax increases generally.
Voters believe that Kaine is less likely to hold taxes down, and they strongly oppose a gas tax increase when a gallon of fuel costs more than $3. But by 2 to 1, they think the 2004 tax increases Warner pushed through were "mainly a good thing."
The challenge for Kaine is to gain credit for those accomplishments. Asked how much responsibility Kaine should have for the successes and failures of the Warner administration, 43 percent of those polled said "some" and 8 percent said "a lot."
"I think Kaine will keep up on a level footing . . . keep things going in a good direction," said Joe Richards, 70, a retired government worker from Williamsburg.
Kaine aides said the next two months offer great opportunities. "As people get to know us, our numbers move in the right direction," Elleithee said.
Kaine's television ads and mailings say he played an integral part in helping Warner push the tax increases through a reluctant legislature. And for the next 59 days, he will say that the tax increases allowed the government to spend billions of dollars on schools.
That message could work for Kaine, the poll suggests, because education ranks as the top issue among voters.
Twenty-one percent said public education is their highest priority, and more than half believe Kaine would improve public education as governor. In addition to talking about school investment, Kaine has proposed to spend $300 million a year to make preschool available to all 4-year-olds, an idea supported by almost three-quarters of those polled.
Kaine seems to have effectively countered Kilgore's attacks on the death penalty. A lawyer, Kaine twice represented death row inmates and has said he is morally opposed to capital punishment. But he vows to enforce it as governor.
Virginians overwhelmingly support the death penalty. But by 2 to 1, voters said they believed Kaine would enforce the law despite his personal opposition.
A Little Bit
In a tight race, every little bit counts. And Potts is getting that little bit, the poll shows.
Potts is a Republican whose service in the Senate began more than a decade ago. As a senior member of the chamber, he chairs the Education and Health Committee. But he is not known well statewide. Half of those surveyed said they are familiar with him.
His decision to run for governor as an independent appears to have hurt his support among members of his own party. Only 2 percent of Republicans are planning to vote for him. Eleven percent of independents said they support Potts.
"I consider Potts a middle-of-the-roader," said Patrick Weakland, 69, a retired airline pilot who lives in the Northern Neck. "He's not the consummate politician. That's the kind of man that I want."
Weakland said he's an independent; years ago, he cast a vote for H. Ross Perot for president. He supports Bush and voted for Warner in 2001.
"Warner, I think, had . . . to make some hard decisions," Weakland said. "Anybody who comes into a government with a budget deficit where you don't have enough money to pay the bills, and turn it around, that's what we need in governments."
The Post's poll of self-identified Virginia voters was conducted by telephone Sept. 6-9. The margin of error for overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Polling director Richard Morin and staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.