RICHMOND — After months of official campaigning, millions of dollars raised and spent, and a last-minute Presidential visit here last night, Jerry Kilgore’s candidacy boils down to one question: Is Virginia still reflexively Republican?
Because if it is, President Bush’s attempt to establish himself as the kingmaker of the Virginia gubernatorial race may have been sufficient. Last night’s rally at a Richmond airport hanger, attended by an estimated 7,000 supporters, probably did not change any minds or woo any from the vacillating middle.
Kilgore and Bush mostly stuck to the beaten path: presenting a little something for those who seriously like Bush and a little something for serious conservatives. Kilgore’s introduction of Bush was the candidate’s strongest embrace of conservatism yet. “We’re only hours away from bringing conservative leadership back to Richmond,” Kilgore said. Kilgore twice emphasized low taxes, including expressing that “it is an honor to introduce a man who knows how important it is to keep taxes low.” Kilgore campaigned on tax referenda, but rarely has he been so insistent on low taxes.
President Bush delivered his now-trademark personal endorsement as well as tackled serious policy issues in the race. Praise for Kilgore’s family, wife, faith, clear thinking, and overall character occupied the first half of the speech. “Put him in office and you’ll be proud of the job he’ll do for you,” Bush said. Despite apparently fighting a cold after his difficult weekend in Argentina, Bush seemed to lay on the accent to highlight Kilgore’s Virginia roots. “The thing I like about this fellow is he grew up in Virginia, and he grew up on a small farm…. He doesn’t have a lot of fancy airs…. [He’s] a person who shares the values of the majority of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” For the true Bush loyalists, this would be sufficient. Conservatives still smarting from Harriet Miers would be seeking something more.
And Bush delivered. Bush sprinkled his speech with language from Kilgore’s hallmark issues of education, transportation, and law enforcement. But the President was here to tout Bush-style conservatism: fighting terrorism, lower taxes, and culture of life. In these areas, Bush performs well and shows it with moments like, “He trusts the people with their own money,” and, “Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to each man and woman in this world.” If lackadaisical or skeptical conservative voters caught the second half of the speech, then Bush likely roused a few to action.
We will only know the fruits of Bush’s visit when we see the margin of victory. If Kilgore ekes out a win, this campaign came down to the Get Out the Vote efforts, as the Washington Post detailed yesterday, and Bush was the crucial factor. The Kilgore campaign thought Bush greatly contributed to the Get Out the Vote. “We awoke the sleeping giant that is Virginia conservatives,” spokesman Tucker Martin said after the rally.
So will Kilgore win today? It really could go either way. Kilgore appears to be enjoying a swing, perhaps fueled by the Bush visit. RealClearPolitics predicts an average Kaine lead of 3 percent, and the three-day SurveyUSA poll had Kaine up by 9 points. That was until their polling Sunday and yesterday showed a massive swing toward Kilgore, causing them to readjust Kaine’s lead to 5 points. Sunday’s and Monday’s data alone show an even closer race. Yesterday’s data was so volatile that SurveyUSA continued polling throughout the afternoon and evening to report that the candidates are tied in the one-day sample.
There’s clearly a buzz in the Republican ranks. The Kilgore campaign claims this was likely the largest crowd in Virginia campaign history. Traffic was so far backed up on the way to the airport last night that as many as a thousand couldn’t make it inside the hangar gates before Secret Service closed the event.
And the mother of all weathervanes: local TV stations send their “A” reporters to whichever final campaign rally they suppose will win. Last week, the Virginia TV news scuttlebutt goes, the top reporters were scheduled to attend Kaine’s victory party. Now, they’re switching to Kilgore’s.