News trickled out today that President Bush will visit Virginia in support of Republican candidate for governor Jerry Kilgore. Monday's rally flies in the face of conventional wisdom on the race: that Bush is hurting Kilgore and that Kilgore is avoiding him. Will the election-eve rally prove a masterstroke or the last hurrah of a bungled campaign?
The story that the president's poll numbers were dragging down state candidates seemed a little wishful. And not just from the liberal media angle, although that's always a possibility. Pundits and Democrats alike want these local races to have national significance. Bush is failing, the story goes -- he's kryptonite. Even the Times of London observed today that Bush "appears to have become so radioactive that Mr. Kilgore refuses to be seen anywhere near him."
But what has changed since President Bush's reelection? Liberals' ire hasn't lessened -- they've always foamed at the mouth against him. It's conservative opinion that's changed. Between spending, Harriet Miers, and various other bones to pick, conservatives have soured on the President, so a substantial drop from reelection poll numbers leaves only the fiercely loyal Bushies. Given Kilgore's poor performance and reluctance to take clearly conservative positions, this party-first-and-always crowd is buoying his campaign.
Kilgore press secretary Tim Murtaugh's statement on the visit today suggests the Bush visit will target the Bushies: "The best way to fire up our voters is to have the President come into Virginia less than twelve hours before the polls open," Murtaugh said.
Kilgore might pick up a few Bush loyalists miffed by the apparent snub at Norfolk. And we're talking just a few because, after all, the Bush true believers stick with Republicans. Picking up those folks isn't worth the risk, if President Bush truly is a risk.
So if you're Jerry Kilgore, why are you meeting with President Bush? It attracts thunder and attention at the last second. It's bold and confident -- even cocky. You're running counter to conventional wisdom with a phenomenally risky move (if the conventional wisdom that Bush is radioactive is true). You steal the election day headlines from your opponent.
The second reason: While Bush's job approval is low overall in Virginia, he won Northern Virginia counties that look like toss-ups for you. Loudoun, a largely exurb county to the west and north of D.C., is one such possible "growing purple" county -- but Bush took it by 56-44 percent. The same goes for Prince William, to the south and west, which Bush won by 53-46 percent. Assume Fairfax County (Kerry by 7), the most populous in the state, belongs to the dogs. Yet Loudoun's and Prince William's registered voters total 330,000. That's about 10% of the Commonwealth, nothing to sneeze at.
These areas may seem iffy because Kilgore and the President are not polling well there. Yet election polls are much different from job approval polls: the President reminds voters of the choice between him and John Kerry. That choice is parallel to the choice between Kilgore and Tim Kaine. And some doubters are placated. Still, President Bush's mere appearance can only win over so many indifferent conservatives.
That brings us to the third good reason for Jerry Kilgore to spend his last night campaigning with President Bush. In this scenario, the two men take the stage in Richmond and proclaim a bold, proud conservatism. A tax-cutting, government-shrinking, abortion-fighting, red-meat conservatism. Realizing that Virginia is still red as ever and salivating for conservative leadership, they embrace the issues that win elections for Republicans.
But my money says that won't happen. Bush and Kilgore will fire up the true Republicans but not the true conservative believers. It'll make for a good party but won't win any new Kilgore voters.
Either way, a Bush visit is probably too little, too late. No matter how much the President could bolster Kilgore, most folks will have their minds made 12 hours before the polls open.
With Bush so loudly stumping for Kilgore, neither man can brush off the coattails story line come Wednesday. They've wrapped their fortunes together: Bush is gambling on a Kilgore win for much needed national momentum. A loss will fulfill the media's fantasy.