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Lesson for Democrats in Virginia governor race

Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's win over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore marked what could be a strengthening of Democratic appeal in Northern Virginia, and  showed that Republicans can no longer depend simply on the power of their party.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Virginia's quadrennial search for a governor featured neither charismatic personalities nor dominant policy initiatives. But Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's resounding victory over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore nonetheless provided important political lessons for the commonwealth, and maybe the country.

The outcome marked what feels like a dramatic strengthening of Democratic appeal in Northern Virginia, the state's richest and most populous region. It showed that Republicans can no longer depend simply on the power of their party to win statewide and demonstrated the dangers of a negative campaign. It presented an intriguing campaign model for Democrats, in which religious faith plays an important role. And most of all it demonstrated the appeal of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), for whom this could become the first stop of a presidential campaign.

"The real asset that Kaine had was this rather astonishing popularity of Warner," said Merle Black, a professor who studies Southern politics at Emory University.

George Mason University professor Mark J. Rozell agreed. "I think to a large extent [the story] is the Warner influence," said Rozell, who has closely followed the race. "He created the circumstances for a Democrat to win in a Republican-leaning state in the South."

Those circumstances included a soaring approval rating that was steady across party lines and an electorate that was happy with the way the state was being governed and upset with the national trends. Virginia just one year ago awarded President Bush a large margin in his reelection campaign, but like the rest of the country, it has soured on his performance.

Although Warner has been careful not to criticize Bush directly -- for that matter, his instinctual nods to bipartisanship meant he made a point of not mentioning Kilgore by name -- he made the case all the same. "If we want to make it a comparison between how things are going in Virginia and how they are going in Washington, that's a comparison I will take any day of the week," he said while campaigning for Kaine this weekend.

Presidential foreshadowing?
Bush invited the judgment by scheduling an eleventh-hour campaign event with Kilgore at a Richmond airplane hangar. The final images of the campaign were Warner and Kaine rallying their troops, and Bush and Kilgore linking arms. "People were willing to accept Mark Warner's recommendation and not willing to accept George Bush's recommendation," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato.

Black said the election could hardly have gone better for Warner as he begins to put together a national campaign. "You can imagine him on the ticket, either as the presidential candidate or the vice president, and Virginia automatically becomes a competitive state," he said. The commonwealth has not supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Kaine, the lieutenant governor, relied so heavily on Warner's support -- he constantly referred to the "Warner-Kaine administration" even though the two were elected separately four years ago -- that his own accomplishments in the race might tend to be overlooked.

But Kaine, who slipped into office four years ago with the scantest of margins, skillfully blunted Kilgore's attempts to portray him as too liberal for conservative Virginia. Kaine becomes the first candidate since the reinstatement of the death penalty to win the governorship of a Southern state despite his personal opposition, although he has said he will carry out executions.

Faith-based campaign
Kaine defended himself against Kilgore's attack on the subject by saying that it is his beliefs as a deeply religious Catholic that lead him to oppose the death penalty and abortion. But he also said he would follow the law on capital punishment and advocate laws that protect the right to abortion.

"The elite never really got that argument," said David Eichenbaum, one of Kaine's media advisers, referring to columnists and others who wondered how Kaine could be, in his words, "morally" opposed and yet pledge not to try to change the law. "But people who heard him got it."

"I think this is an interesting test case for Democrats to see if you can run a faith-based campaign focused on values and do so as a progressive candidate in a Southern state," Rozell said.

It worked, Rozell said, because of Kaine's frequent reference to his service as a missionary in Honduras while in law school and his familiarity with the language of religion. "It did not come off as calculated," he said.

In his victory speech last night, Kaine told the crowd, "We proved that faith in God is a value we all can share regardless of party."

That connection with voters helped Kaine when Kilgore unleashed a set of visually stunning ads that became the talk of the campaign: family members of murder victims criticizing Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty and his legal work on behalf of death row inmates. Many Democrats worried that the attacks would sink the campaign; instead, they led to a backlash and established Kilgore as the more negative campaigner in voters' minds.

That partly is because Kilgore gave voters little else. Unlike successful Republican candidates such as George Allen in 1993 and James S. Gilmore III four years later, Kilgore had no signature issue to offer; his campaign was aimed at establishing his conservative credentials and trying to paint Kaine as too liberal, and it did little to attract independents and Democrats.

'Candidates who can communicate'
For all the talk of political trends and outside forces, elections come down to a comparison of candidates, and Kilgore rarely seemed a confident campaigner. He avoided joint appearances with Kaine and stumbled badly in one memorable confrontation with television journalist Tim Russert as he avoided clearly stating his anti-abortion stance.

Kilgore was swamped in Northern Virginia, where Kaine exceeded Warner's margins from four years ago, even in the outer suburbs.

The Kilgore campaign never believed that Kaine could do as well in Northern Virginia as Warner, the businessman from Alexandria. But the Democrat got more than 70 percent of the vote in Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church, and he got more than 60 percent in Fairfax County, home to one in seven Virginia voters. Kilgore had counted on Republicans in the outer suburbs to offset the Democratic advantage inside the Capital Beltway, but Kaine won there, too.

"The old days of places like Prince William and Loudoun being automatically Republican are over," Sabato said. "Republicans are finding that you need to nominate candidates who can communicate with the suburbs."