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Virginia election spotlights Warner, death penalty

October 21, 2005

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

LEESBURG, Virginia (Reuters) – In a close Virginia
governor’s race marked by a bitter fight over the death
penalty, the biggest name is not on the ballot — popular
incumbent and potential Democratic presidential contender Mark
Warner.

With Warner barred by state law from seeking a second term,
Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and Republican former state
Attorney General Jerry Kilgore are battling to succeed him in a
race that polls show is too close to call.

But Warner, whose centrist appeal and job approval rating
of more than 70 percent in a Republican-leaning Southern state
have given him a growing national profile, has been a constant
presence on the campaign trail and in television ads on Kaine’s
behalf.

The two stress their teamwork in wiping out the state’s
huge budget deficit, improving Virginia’s schools and earning
top marks for the state’s management.

“The choice in this race is very clear. Tim Kaine has stood
with me on every issue that Virginia has confronted and his
opponent has stood against us,” Warner told a crowd packed into
a diner for a breakfast rally in the northern Virginia town of
Leesburg.

The governor’s race in Virginia and another in New Jersey
are the biggest contests in the off-year November 8 election
and will be watched closely for evidence of how the mounting
political struggles of President George W. Bush and national
Republicans are influencing voters.

Kilgore, whose early lead in polls has slipped to a
statistical tie, has warned voters that Kaine will raise their
taxes and is too far to the left on social issues like gun
control, immigration and, most prominently, the death penalty.

FOCUS ON DEATH PENALTY

In a state where a solid majority supports the death
penalty, Kilgore aired two stark and emotional television ads
featuring family members of murdered state residents. The ads
denounced Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty and
said he could not be trusted to carry out an execution.

“Tim Kaine is too liberal on this issue,” Kilgore said in a
recent debate.

The ads helped draw a distinction between Kaine and Warner,
who supports the death penalty. Kaine says as a Catholic he has
a faith-based objection to executions but is willing to carry
out Virginia’s state law.

“Just like any other person of faith, I can take an oath
and follow it. I’m good to my word. Virginians appreciate
somebody who has a faith conviction,” said Kaine, who called
the ads a sign of desperation by Kilgore’s campaign.

He said he thought the harsh tone of the ads had backfired
on Kilgore, who unveiled two new positive ads this week. One
featured Kilgore’s own political mentor, popular U.S. Sen.
George Allen, a former governor and a prospective Republican
White House candidate in 2008.

Republicans hope the Virginia race will help them extend
their political dominance in the South, where they elected five
new senators to formerly Democratic seats last November and
reclaimed the governor’s offices in Mississippi and Kentucky in
2003.

TEST FOR WARNER

But no one has more riding on the outcome than Warner, a
prospective 2008 White House candidate who bases his appeal to
national Democrats on his ability to reach moderate and rural
voters and help the party become competitive again in the
South.

“If Warner can’t swing the election to his own lieutenant
governor with a popularity rating of 75 percent, then Democrats
have the right to ask, ‘Can this guy really swing any Southern
states or was this a fluke?”‘ University of Virginia political
analyst Larry Sabato said.

Warner, a former chairman of the National Governors
Association, has emphasized education and fiscal management
while cementing a national reputation as a Democrat who is
equally comfortable at NASCAR races or high-tech conferences.

He acknowledges he will be judged in part on his ability to
help deliver Virginia for Kaine but says he is not concerned by
the prospect.

“I’m going to do everything I can for him,” Warner said in
an interview. “I have worked too hard to take the keys to the
office and put them in the hands of a guy who has worked
against us.”

Kilgore, who says Kaine was a “mediocre” mayor of Richmond,
frequently reminds voters of Kaine’s support for tax increases
in the 2004 budget agreement that Warner won from the
Republican-controlled state legislature. Kilgore opposed the
agreement.

“He supported the largest tax increase in Virginia history.
He’s raised taxes in each and every office he’s held,” Kilgore
said.

But Sabato said Warner’s popularity is Kaine’s best
“antidote” to further attacks in the final weeks of the race.

“Warner is the reason this race is essentially tied,”
Sabato said.




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