Democrat Timothy M. Kaine has taken a narrow lead in Virginia's governor's race, buoyed by newfound strength in Northern Virginia's outer suburbs and an electorate turned off by what it considers the negative tone of his Republican opponent, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Kaine leads Republican Jerry W. Kilgore among the most likely voters by three percentage points, 47 to 44, according to the poll, which has a three percentage point margin of error. Independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. was supported by 4 percent of the voters.

The poll suggests a photo finish to a contest in which Kaine has cast himself as the logical successor to Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner, who is barred from running for reelection. Kilgore has sought to define Kaine as a liberal who is out of touch with the state's conservative soul.

Kaine, the lieutenant governor and former mayor of Richmond, has tapped into Warner's sky-high popularity and enters the final stretch before the Nov. 8 election with momentum. But the governor's mansion is still within reach for the GOP, which holds solid majorities in the state legislature and closes strongly in statewide races.

The question for Kilgore, an ex-prosecutor and the state's former attorney general, is whether he can retake the lead in time, despite the political problems of his national party and President Bush.

"This is still a very, very close race. It's going to be a very late night on election night," said Kaine spokesman Mo Elleithee. "We feel very good about the momentum we are seeing. This confirms that people are not responding well to the slash-and-burn campaign that Jerry Kilgore is running."

Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh challenged the results of the poll, which he called "slanted."

"The Washington Post poll has historically gone against Republican candidates," he said. "All of the polls have indicated that this is a close race, but we continue to believe that we have the lead."

Kaine improved his standing in the past 45 days. A Post poll conducted Sept. 6 to 9 showed the lieutenant governor trailing Kilgore by four percentage points among all voters and seven percentage points among likely voters.

Since then, Kaine has consolidated support among party loyalists and widened his lead among independents. He is besting Kilgore among women and older voters. He now leads among suburban voters, including the populous outer suburban communities of western Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

Kilgore is leading among whites, men and those who say they live in rural areas. He also is favored by those who describe themselves as against abortion and for the death penalty.

Political observers said the challenge for both major-party candidates is to turn out their voters in a campaign that for a long time failed to stir passions. Kilgore is still in a strong position to win if he can woo some independents and undecided voters to his column.

To do that, the poll suggests, he will have to shed the impression among a majority of voters, and especially independents, that he has run the more negative campaign. And he will need to do so in a political environment that has been poisoned by the sagging ratings of Bush and the ethical accusations lodged against others in the Republican Party.

"They do have a bit of wind in their faces," Kaine media strategist David Eichenbaum said of the Virginia Republicans. "It's a rare break that we Democrats are enjoying right now."

Death Penalty Ad Backlash

There are some bright spots for Kilgore in the poll, which is based on interviews with 1,004 likely voters from last Sunday through Wednesday. The number of people who believe Kaine is too liberal has jumped nine percentage points, to 40 percent, since the September poll. And more people believe Kilgore would hold down taxes, if elected.

"I've been disappointed with Warner's spending, and I'm just afraid that Kaine is just going to be more of the same," said Greg Drauch, 41, a computer consultant who lives outside the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County. "It's the increased taxes. It's what I think is the poor spending of it." In 2004, Warner won legislative approval to raise taxes and increase spending on education and other public services.

Kilgore appears to have won over some voters who don't see Kaine as a viable stand-in for Warner. "I think I'm going to go back over to [the] Republicans this time," said Richard Green, 67, a retired banker in Manassas who voted for Warner in 2001.

Kilgore's overall decline coincides with a backlash from his intensely emotional television ads about the death penalty.

The Republican unveiled the ads Oct. 11, and almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they have seen them. Both sides said the ads had the potential to reshape the governor's race. In one, the father of a murder victim accuses Kaine, a lawyer, of representing his son's killer. The distraught father says Kaine would have refused to send Adolf Hitler to death row.

The new poll shows that most voters agree with Kilgore's support for the death penalty. Even so, voters overwhelmingly say the ads were unfair, and they blame Kilgore for launching mean-spirited attacks. Two-thirds say Kilgore has conducted a negative campaign, and 55 percent believe Kilgore would "say anything" to get elected.

"Kilgore has not conducted himself during the campaign in a way that I would like him to conduct himself," said Kate Spears, 41, a federal worker in Springfield who calls herself an independent. "It's the ads that he's run. It's the misleading. It's the attacking."

As attorney general, Kilgore pushed for the state's "Stand By Your Ad" law, which requires candidates to appear in all their ads, acknowledging that they approved them. The poll results and interviews with voters suggest that the requirement has hurt Kilgore.

"I had a visceral reaction to Kilgore's ads," said Tom Evans, 55, a health care consultant from McLean who describes himself as a Republican and says he is voting for Kaine. "Take all that together, it just gives me a bad feeling."

More than half of independent voters say Bush's support for Kilgore makes them less likely to vote for the Republican candidate.

"I want to send a message that the arrogance of George Bush is not to be accepted," said William Gill, 66, an retired educator in eastern Prince William County. Gill said he has voted Republican and Democratic in the past, but he is likely to vote for Kaine.

"I'm disappointed in the war," Gill said. "I'm disappointed in the ethics of the Republicans."

Positives and Negatives

For Kaine, the poll confirms a basic truth about Virginia: It's a hard state for Democrats to crack.

Although the poll suggests that many issues are working in his favor, Kaine leads Kilgore by a small amount. Senior Democrats in Virginia said they believe Kaine must be ahead by at least five percentage points going into Election Day. They noted that Warner was ahead by 10 percentage points with a week left in 2001, but he won by half that.

Kilgore ads that accuse Kaine of wanting to raise taxes appear to have had an effect. Voters who say taxes are their top concern are backing Kilgore by 3 to 1. And concern about taxes ranks among the top three issues for voters, behind public education and handling of the state budget.

On public education concerns, voters give the edge to Kaine. Seventy percent say Kaine would improve public schools, and 52 percent say the same of Kilgore.

"I'm really more interested in education and the economy," said Martha Moore, 56, an elementary reading specialist in Smyth County. "Education tends to be better funded with Democrats, whether on the state or national level."

Kaine is seen by a majority of voters as having run an honest, straightforward campaign. Sixty percent say he has been "honest in his political dealings" and fewer than half believe he would "say anything" to get elected.

Kaine has run some ads that accuse Kilgore of robbing money from education and of being in the pocket of big drug companies. But most voters do not seem to hold those ads against him.

Close to 60 percent say they think he is running a positive campaign, and 33 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him. Forty-three percent have an unfavorable opinion of Kilgore.

Kaine appears to benefit from his association with Warner, who is featured in several television ads with Kaine. Eight out of 10 people said they approve of the way Warner is handing his job, and 70 percent think the state is headed in the right direction. Four years ago, Warner focused extra effort on southwest Virginia and other rural communities. Kaine's advisers have said their target is the state's growing suburbs around Washington and Richmond and in Hampton Roads.

The poll shows Kaine comfortably ahead in Northern Virginia. Democrats have done consistently well in Arlington and Alexandria, and the poll shows Kaine ahead by six percentage points in the outer suburbs, which include western Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, where the GOP is traditionally strong. Not all regions had a sufficient sample size in the poll to allow for regional analysis.

Three weeks ago, Kaine began running ads in which he proposes giving local governments new power to stop development until road capacity is adequate. Those ads appear to be working; three-quarters say they support such a plan, although a similar number say they like Kilgore's plan for local tax referendums to raise money for roads.

Kaine's biggest advantage, however, might be among independent voters, where he leads Kilgore 52 to 33 percent. Almost half of independents think Kilgore is "too conservative," and less than a third say Kaine is "too liberal" for Virginia.

Three-fourths of all independents say they believe Kaine will enforce the death penalty, despite his religious opposition to it.

"Kaine is taking a principled stand against the death penalty, consistent with his Roman Catholic faith," said David Gambill, 54, a retail sales merchandiser from the Richmond suburbs. Asked whether he thinks Kaine would enforce the death penalty, if elected, Gambill said: "I'm sure he will. I'm opposed to the death penalty, but if I were the governor, you gotta do it."

Staff writer Robert Barnes and polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.

Jerry W. Kilgore trails by three percentage points in a new Washington Post poll, but his spokesman says the Republican candidate is in the lead.