Virginia's down-to-the-wire contest to replace popular governor Mark R. Warner will likely turn on whether voters agree that Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine will keep the state moving in a direction they like or decide he's not their brand of Democrat.
Kaine, 47, wants Tuesday's election to be a referendum on the last four years and pledges to repay Warner's endorsement by "moving Virginia forward" with the same kind of moderate but progressive policies that have earned Warner historically high approval ratings. Even two-thirds of the commonwealth's Republicans like the job Warner has done.
Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore, the former attorney general, promises a stronger economy, lower taxes and more money for services. But, primarily, Kilgore wants this year's election to be a referendum on Kaine.
Kilgore, 44, has abandoned the strategy of successful Republicans who trumpeted a signature issue that resonated with voters: George Allen's 1993 promise to abolish parole and enact school standards, and James S. Gilmore III's pledge four years later to get rid of the hated car tax, for example.
Instead, Kilgore has spent millions of dollars in television advertising to portray his opponent as too liberal for Virginia, untrustworthy on the death penalty and taxes, and himself as the protector of a general conservatism that Virginians have endorsed in the past.
"The campaign from the Kilgore perspective has been all about Kaine," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who is a connoisseur of the state's quadrennial political contests. "And from the Kaine perspective, it's all about Warner."
Campaign 2005 has been thick with negative advertising, especially on Kilgore's part, and lacking in big initiatives. A Washington Post poll taken Oct. 23 through 26 asked Virginia voters which candidate had the best new ideas, and nearly 60 percent said "neither."
The election "has not been about the issues that are of critical importance to the commonwealth and the business environment," said Michael P. Carlin, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.
But it is extremely close. Polls indicate that Kaine has overcome the deficit he faced this summer, but neither candidate has broken open the race. With scant time left to convince undecided voters, each has multimillion-dollar battle plans to turn out the voters they think are already believers. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Voters will also choose between Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds for attorney general and pick either Democrat Leslie L. Byrne or Republican Bill Bolling to serve as lieutenant governor. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are open, although only a handful are considered to be competitive.
Yesterday, the state's leading Republican politicians joined Kilgore at a rally in Springfield, where he declared himself the "pro-gun-owner, anti-tax, limited-government, anti-illegal-immigration, pro-public-safety, pro-death-penalty . . . trust-the-people conservative."
Kaine and Warner attended rallies and potluck suppers in Southwest Virginia with Byrne and Deeds. At one stop, Kaine said, "It's hard to remember one positive thing [Kilgore] has put out about himself or what he wants to do."
History favors a strong Republican finish on Election Day.
Democratic political consultant Steve Jarding, who managed Warner's campaign in 2001, noted: "Clearly, the trend lines are in Kaine's favor. But what would make me very nervous is the absolute, almost empirical evidence that at the end of the election in Virginia, Republicans tend to come home."
But this isn't a normal year in a state that hasn't supported a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. President Bush's popularity has collapsed, and the bad news and scandals that have dogged the national Republicans resonate in populous Northern Virginia. Bush will attend an election-eve rally Monday night for Kilgore in Richmond.
And state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), whose independent campaign stagnated at 4 percent in the polls, nevertheless is drawing some votes that in this close race could be crucial.
If ever the only-in-Virginia ban on governors serving consecutive terms vexed an incumbent, it would have to be this year. The environment for Warner's reelection could hardly be rosier.
Polls show him with a job approval rating approaching 80 percent. Warner's battles to fix the state's finances and his middle-of-the-road political philosophy have won converts among many former critics.
Unable to run, the best Warner could do was set the stage for Kaine: The Post poll indicated that 70 percent of voters believed "things in the state of Virginia are generally going in the right direction."
"On any measurement, Virginia has made some great progress," Warner said. "We now have a choice about whether we continue that same approach."
Kilgore retains the advantage that comes with being a Republican in a generally conservative state, but the political environment has become less inviting. Just a year after Bush took nearly 54 percent of the vote in Virginia, a majority of the state's voters disapprove of the way he is handling his job. Only about a third of Virginians think the country is headed in the right direction.
"Let's face it, there have been better times to be a Republican candidate than November 2005," said state Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun).
Kilgore started his campaign determined to define Kaine based on the Democrat's positions on the death penalty, abortion, taxes and other volatile issues. Collectively, his advisers believed, the attacks would add up to a picture of a man out of touch with Virginians and very unlike Warner.
"It was very easy [in 2001 for Warner] to portray himself as something that we found out later that he wasn't. He didn't have a record," said GOP strategist Chris LaCivita, who has advised the Kilgore campaign. "The lessons of 2001 have been applied."
The plan was simple, and Kilgore's fundraising prowess -- a record $22 million and counting -- allowed him to implement it. More than half his television ads were attacks on Kaine, including two powerful death penalty spots featuring the relatives of murder victims.
Kilgore's media team -- led by veteran GOP consultant Scott Howell -- used a cartoon-like image of Kaine gobbling tax money. Another showed a man doing flips on a trampoline while an announcer declared Kaine a flip-flopper. Recently, Kilgore began running a gritty ad accusing Kaine of supporting benefits for illegal immigrants.
The effort was at least partly successful, operatives for both sides said. Polls suggest that Virginia voters believe Kaine would be more likely to raise taxes than Kilgore. In The Post poll, four out of 10 said Kaine is too liberal.
The result of Kilgore's relentless barrage, however, has been a strong perception among voters that the Republican has run a more vicious campaign. In The Post poll, 67 percent of those surveyed said Kilgore had been conducting a negative campaign, compared with 40 percent who thought that of Kaine.
The death penalty ads, in particular, appeared to turn off many voters. Sixty-five percent said they were unfair to Kaine.
In his response ads, Kaine said his opposition to capital punishment was based on his religion but promised to enforce the law, a message that 68 percent of voters believed, according to the poll.
"By attacking him on his religious convictions with respect to the death penalty, [Kilgore] has highlighted Tim as a man of faith," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).
Kaine Defines Himself
From the beginning, aides said, Kaine anticipated that his history as a civil rights lawyer who had defended several death row inmates and his public record as mayor of Richmond and lieutenant governor would become fodder for the Republican media machine.
His strategy: Define himself first, as a man of faith and as a centrist who would govern like Warner.
That began in February at a speech to Democratic activists in Richmond and then in Kaine's first ad, in which he says: "The Bible teaches us that we can accomplish great things when we work together. These are my values, and that's what I believe in."
Kaine's use of religion, some political observers say, helped him withstand Kilgore's barrage of negative ads. "It's the genuineness that has allowed him to weather all sorts of attacks," said John Milliken, former transportation secretary for former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D).
Like Kilgore, Kaine never seized on a single dominant issue. Out of the gate, he announced a plan to hold down homeowner taxes but then rarely mentioned it the rest of the year. His plan for preschool for all 4-year-olds never rose to the top. A slow-growth proposal came only in the last month.
If Kaine wins, said Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, it will be because he convinced voters that he was Warner II. "That will give Warner a huge boost on the national stage." If Kilgore wins, observers said, it will have been by convincing voters that Kaine was an awkward fit for Virginia.
Either way, veterans of Virginia campaigns said, it has not been a pretty contest to watch.
Jarding, Warner's 2001 campaign manager, said Kilgore defined Kaine and Kaine defined himself. But he said neither offered voters a complete package.
"I don't think Kilgore did a good job of telling Virginians why they should vote for him," Jarding said. "And I don't think Kaine did much to tell Virginia why Jerry Kilgore should not be governor."
Staff writers Timothy Dwyer, Steven Ginsberg and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.