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Bush Aid in Virginia Governor's Race Seen as GOP Gamble

November 05, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush spoke last week in Norfolk, Va., about Iraq and terrorism, one dignitary was noticeably absent: Republican Jerry Kilgore, the state's former attorney general, who is locked in a heated race for governor.

On Friday, the White House announced that Bush and Kilgore would appear together at a rally in Richmond on Monday night, before polls open Tuesday.

The Virginia race is being scrutinized for signs of whether Bush's sinking popularity will affect state and local elections and will be a factor in next year's midterm congressional races. By stepping into the Virginia race, Bush is putting his prestige on the line, one analyst said.

"One thing's for sure: If Kilgore loses, Bush will take a spanking," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Democrats portray the joint appearance as a risk for Kilgore as well. They hope the lastminute campaign event will energize anti-Bush voters, help elect the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine, and establish Virginia as a bellwether for Democratic gains in 2006.

"I've been looking for someone to send a thank-you note to," said Delacey Skinner, spokeswoman for the Kaine campaign. "There couldn't be a clearer demonstration of the difference.... Kilgore is promising to bring the mismanagement on the national level to Virginia."

Bush won 54% of the vote in Virginia in last year's election, 9% more than Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry. But Bush's ratings in national polls have fallen below 40% amid high gas prices, ongoing violence in Iraq and the indictment of a White House aide in the CIA leak investigation.

Still, Republicans say they are confident the Monday rally will demonstrate that Bush can bring out a red state's GOP base.

"We're thrilled to have him in Virginia," said Kilgore campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "Everyone agrees the election is close, and the winner will be the candidate who best turns out his voters. President Bush is the best get-out-the-vote weapon we have. He will whip our supporters up at exactly the right time."

Murtaugh said that Bush's election eve appearance at Kilgore's side, a surprise sure to garner media attention, had been "in the works for some time."

Kilgore's decision not to attend the president's Oct. 28 Norfolk speech was widely noted. He attended an NAACP luncheon instead, saying the president's address focused on policy and was not a campaign-style event.

Bush has not campaigned in New Jersey, which also elects a governor Tuesday. Recent polls there show Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine leading Republican Douglas Forrester.

Sabato described the upcoming joint appearance in Virginia as a gamble. "It nationalizes the election and raises the stakes for Bush," he said. "Until this, Bush had kept the election in both states at arm's length. This is obviously a judgment on their part that Bush could make the difference.

"I think they've decided New Jersey is likely to go Democratic. Virginia is the only chance to prevent yet another political disaster for Bush."

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, is prevented by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.

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