Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore has decided not to attend President Bush's appearance in Norfolk on Friday, saying it is not a campaign-related event and that he has other plans 11 days before the election.
Bush has scheduled a speech on terrorism in the Hampton Roads region, home to one of the largest concentrations of military personnel on the East Coast. But Kilgore, who is in a dead-heat battle with Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said that Bush's address is a "policy" speech and that he has an important appearance at a luncheon for the state NAACP at the same time.
"I'm not ignoring the president," Kilgore said. "I just understand their policies on official business. He's been here for me. The first lady has been here for me. The chief of staff has been here."
The decision highlights some concerns among Virginia Republicans, who have watched nervously in recent weeks as Bush's popularity has waned and as scandals involving presidential aides and congressional leaders have dominated news coverage. Although it is unclear how the national political environment affects voters choosing who should lead their state, even small shifts are important in races that are as close as the Virginia contest.
Kilgore and the White House said there was nothing unusual about Kilgore not attending a policy address from the president, but some Democrats and independent analysts thought it significant that Bush would visit in the final weeks of the campaign and not stump for the party's standard-bearer.
"All these big-name figures coming to the state, but President Bush is coming this close to the election and not campaigning for Kilgore?" asked Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University who is closely following the governor's race. "I think that's very telling.
"I think it's highly likely that the Kilgore campaign folks just don't see Bush as an asset."
White House spokesman Trent Duffy dismissed the notion that Kilgore would avoid appearing with Bush. "You're suspecting he doesn't want to be seen with the president," Duffy said. "I don't think that's what they would say."
He noted that the speech would focus on terrorism. "The president's event is not a political rally. It's an official event."
Kilgore press secretary Tim Murtaugh echoed that.
"We really wouldn't be invited to a presidential event," he said. "They keep the political events and the presidential [events] separate. We appreciate the president's support."
Asked if the Kilgore campaign had requested that the president also do a campaign event while he was in the state, Murtaugh said it had not, because Kilgore's day was already busy. Asked if Bush might schedule a later campaign appearance with Kilgore, Duffy said "stay tuned."
Kilgore and Bush have been political allies; Kilgore was Bush's Virginia campaign chairman last year when he handily carried the commonwealth on his way to reelection. Republicans declared Bush's victory proof that Gov. Mark R. Warner's victory in 2001 was a Democratic fluke in a reliably Republican commonwealth.
Kilgore's campaign manager directed the Bush campaign last year, and the president was the headliner at a July fundraiser for Kilgore in McLean that raised more than $2 million for the campaign.
Polls show that Bush is more popular in Virginia than nationally, but his numbers are far below those of Warner. Although the two were elected separately four years ago, Kaine and Warner have campaigned together extensively this fall, and Kaine has cast himself as the best person to carry on Warner's policies. The governor is barred by law from seeking reelection.
"People feel better about the way things are going in the state than they do about the way things are going in the country," said Kaine communications director Mo Elleithee. "Maybe Jerry Kilgore feels the same way."
Steve Jarding, a political consultant who managed Warner's campaign in 2001, said Kilgore could hurt himself among the Republican faithful if his decision is seen as a slight. "You don't run away from your president, no matter what problems he has," Jarding said.
Both Kaine and Kilgore are importing lots of politicians for rallies and fundraisers in the closing days of the campaign. Vice President Cheney and Laura Bush have held private fundraisers for Kilgore in the past two weeks, although White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove canceled his appearance before the Fairfax Republican Party in an event that featured the three GOP statewide candidates.
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani will appear at a luncheon for Kilgore today in Norfolk, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is on tap next week.
Kaine counters today with a women's fundraiser with Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a "multicultural rally" with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and campaign events this weekend with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.