Jerry Kilgore's campaign is on the rocks. He can still occupy the Governor's Mansion in Richmond come January. But the surest path to victory in these closing days of the Virginia gubernatorial race is a sharp turn to the right.
For the past few weeks, I've heard some Virginians and assorted politicos questioning Kilgore's conservative credentials. Such remarks were easy to dismiss as hand-wringing on the right or Democratic attempts to split Republicans.
But in October the race shifted from Kilgore's to lose to a toss-up. SurveyUSA numbers released Monday, October 24, showed Kilgore tracking at 40.5 percent, Kaine at 39.8, and independent Russ Potts at 4.1. Since June 27, Kaine is up nearly 7 points while Kilgore is down by almost 2 percent. With undecideds decreasing by almost 5 percent, they're clearly shifting to Kaine. A new Rasmussen poll reported Friday a 4-point swing in Kaine's favor over the last week, though margins in both polls are within the margin of error.
As columnist Bob Novak wrote in last week's "Evans-Novak Political Report," Kilgore's problems in this race don't stem from President Bush's problems. With down-ticket Republicans doing much better, these problems are Kilgore's.
Therefore, Novak predicted a Kaine upset, citing Kilgore's poor showing in the debates and twice botching the "identical abortion question ... refusing to take a position on the criminalization of abortion. This is a big mistake because it will gain him little support and it also raises unnecessary suspicions about him on the Right."
Kilgore also hasn't committed on taxes. Americans for Tax Reform said last week that Kilgore has not signed "the pledge" not to raise taxes as governor. Grover Norquist told TAS Friday, "He has left the door open to some tax increase. Ten years ago, that'd be a pretty good line in the sand. When you're running against a guy who raised taxes by a billion dollars, you gotta be pretty clear. He's not gonna raise taxes. He should say it. The tax issue is the one that wins elections for Republicans -- period." Kilgore's campaign argues that taking the pledge four years ago is sufficient. "Jerry has given his word," said spokesman Tucker Martin.
Republicans smarting from last year's tax increase will find enthusiasm for Kilgore difficult if he doesn't forswear future increases. At the September 14 debate, he implied that he wouldn't repeal the tax increase. And he reportedly promised the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce that he wouldn't fight a regional tax increase in Northern Virginia. Still, Martin maintains that Kilgore is anti-tax, "Jerry is the low tax candidate. Jerry is the one who said no way to the tax increase," he said, "We're attacked because we didn't support the tax increase."
The campaign's current strategy appears unsuccessful. The death penalty issue could have been more effective for Kilgore if it had been presented more tactfully, or a month ago. Instead, Virginians' support for the death penalty has increased by more than 7 percent even as Kilgore has lost overall traction.
On what other issues does Kilgore offer as a strong, attractive alternative? Domestic violence and overcrowded classrooms? While these are admirable positions, who's going to come out in favor of domestic violence? Any advantage over Kaine will be one of decimal points because the candidates will only differ in degrees. The same goes for education: Tim Kaine isn't going to suggest that we pack more students into classrooms.
Emphasizing mostly moderate issues isn't doing the job. Instead, some conservatives wonder what sort of governor Jerry Kilgore would be. Is he the type of Republican who attends NAACP luncheons or events with President Bush? Last Friday, he was the former, appearing at a NAACP conference in Richmond while steering clear of the Bush presidential visit to Norfolk -- an event popular conservative Senator George Allen had no problems attending.
Kilgore should embrace conservative positions on taxes and abortion -- they're winners in Virginia. Virginia voters favor tax cuts by 69 to 31 percent. They're pro-life 58 to 42 percent. On taxes, Kaine is touting last year's increase as "budget reform" and attacking Kilgore for not supporting it. On abortion, he's running far to Kilgore's left, griping that Kilgore would be pro-life. These are cynical tactics coming from a supposed Catholic, but they're going to capture his pro-abortion base. Kilgore won't win the pro-lifers by default: by avoiding the abortion question, he leaves doubts. And doubts don't drive turnout on election day.
So here's the plan, Mr. Kilgore: Go sign the pledge with Grover Norquist in front of the Department of Taxation in Richmond. Then visit the Virginia Family Foundation and affirm your commitment to a pro-life culture and legal system. At both events, acknowledge some voters have doubts, say you should have been more clear, and then be bold.
"Jerry's the pro-life candidate. Jerry's the low tax candidate," Tucker Martin said Friday. Kilgore should leave no doubts on this score. He has eight days left.
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