RICHMOND —Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III is starting to act like a candidate again.
In high-profile speeches, the Republican who governed Virginia from 1998 to 2002 is opining on what he believes ails the national GOP. He plans to visit the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire next month, including a stop at the conservative summit organized by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
And in the final weeks before the November midterm elections, he created a super PAC that aired television commercials for Senate candidates from both states, as well as Virginia.
The flurry of activity has some Virginians wondering whether Gilmore is considering running for president next year — or at least wants people to think that he is.
Gilmore’s political career endedwith two political flops — a short-lived presidential bid in 2007, followed by a bruising loss in a 2008 U.S. Senate race to Mark Warner, who had succeeded Gilmore as governor and still holds the Senate seat.
In an interview last week, Gilmore — who is president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative research group — declined to say whether he is serious about competing on the national stage.
“It’s too early to really tell you any answers about where we’re going here,” he said. “But I am committed to addressing the central problems facing the nation.”
Observers say it is hard to tell how Gilmore, 65, could distinguish himself from other potential Republican nominees, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the first Republican to say he is officially exploring a run. (Former Virginia senator Jim Webb, a Democrat, also has said he is in.)
Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor, said Gilmore doesn’t have the stature or funding of other hopefuls.
“Gilmore, he wants back in that electoral arena. He loves politics, he lives and breathes it, and I think he’s frustrated that he doesn’t have a position inside it right now,” Holsworth said. “But I think it’s a challenge to see what the right opportunity would be.”
It wasn’t always this way for Gilmore, a Henrico native and former Army intelligence officer who was a state prosecutor and attorney general before campaigning successfully for governor on a promise to cut the hated car tax.
Elected during a time of economic prosperity, Gilmore helped deliver Virginia for George W. Bush (R) in the 2000 presidential contest.
But as his state’s economy stalled in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001, lawmakers from Gilmore’s party downsized his plan to phase out the car tax. Gilmore wanted to use state funds to reimburse car owners for the vehicle tax they were paying to cities and counties. But state lawmakers said he could only refund a portion of the tax.
He finished his term (Virginia law does not allow governors to run for reelection) on a down note. Warner, a Democrat, was elected to replace him.
Over the past year, Gilmore has visited Oregon, Colorado, New York, Ohio and other states to talk up conservative policies. He says he has a plan for changing the federal tax code — he wants to reduce the personal income tax, eliminate the estate tax and institute a flat corporate tax.
He has strong opinions about national security and says the nation must strike a balance between what he called the “neocon” policies of the Bush White House and President Obama’s “pullback, neo-isolationism.”
Gilmore said he is formulating his thoughts on other issues, such as immigration and U.S. relations with Cuba.
Shortly before the November election, Gilmore launched a political action committee called Growth PAC. He said he raised $102,000 for the PAC and loaned it another $180,000. Most of the money went to produce television ads for Republican Senate candidates Ed Gillespie of Virginia, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Scott Brown of New Hampshire. Of the three, only Ernst won.
Next month, Gilmore will join other Republicans — including potential presidential contenders Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — at King’s Iowa Freedom Summit. Gilmore said a January trip to New Hampshire is planned as well, but details have not been finalized.
“If you’re going to influence events, you certainly want to be addressing the places [that are] most influential in national politics,” he said.
Gilmore’s ability to wield influence remains a work in progress. Upon arriving in the lobby of Richmond’s Berkeley Hotel for an interview last week, he asked if the hotel restaurant could open early to let him have coffee with a reporter. The answer was no.Instead, Gilmore and his interviewer sat in two beat-up chairs in a hallway on the lower level.
A couple of weeks earlier, at the Virginia Republican Party’s annual retreat, he took the stage determined to deliver a screed against the still-hated car tax, the same levy he had successfully campaigned against all those years ago.
“I say to you, ax the tax,” he said, quietly at first and then more loudly, hoisting an ax above his head to illustrate his point.
An aide standing in the back of the room shouted the refrain, and a few others in the crowd joined in.
But the call and response was lackluster, and never fully caught on.