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Virginians 'Think Local' in Choosing a Governor

As in New Jersey race, a small issue may prove decisive in the Nov. 4 election.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1997


Kathy Smith offers an enthusiastic handshake to the man in the business suit and declares: "I'm looking forward to you taking away that car tax!"

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This scene, at a campaign stop in a suburban Virginia Metro station Monday, captures why the man in the suit - Republican Jim Gilmore - may well be the next governor of Virginia. He has found a winning local issue, the dreaded personal property tax, and is running with it.

Never mind that a majority of Virginians tell pollsters they're skeptical the tax will really vanish. Mr. Gilmore, the state's former attorney general, is telling voters (especially men) what they want to hear, and the buzz in Old Dominion is that Gilmore may also sweep a Republican majority into the state legislature with him.

Local issues have also played big in New Jersey, the only other state electing a governor on Nov. 4. There, Democrat Jim McGreevey has pounded on GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman over the state's high auto-insurance rates, and could topple her.

With a strong national economy, Virginia and New Jersey offer a lesson to candidates throughout the country gearing up for elections in 1998: Think local.

"In this age of anti-politics, when the big things are doing well, find something that is irritating [to] voters," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The races in Virginia and New Jersey should be giving politicians some very broad hints."

In Virginia, other factors have hindered Democrat Don Beyer's quest. Current Gov. George Allen (R), who cannot run for reelection, is extremely popular, and he has appeared at campaign events with Gilmore early and often. That, combined with the state's generally strong economy, favors the status quo.

Never mind that Mr. Beyer, the state's current lieutenant governor, is more telegenic than Gilmore or that he is a wealthy Volvo dealer, not a career politician. Unlike Gilmore, who found his silver-bullet issue (ironically, with cars), Beyer failed to make his signature issue - education - resonate.

Beyer proposes putting an additional $400 million into education over the next four years, improving discipline in the classroom and ending the practice of promoting students to the next grade for social reasons.

But even though education is the No. 1 issue with voters nationwide - and voters believe Democrats will do a better job on education by an astounding gap of 28 points over Republicans - Beyer hasn't captured the imagination with the issue. Some observers say Beyer failed to come up with a simple enough message, something clear and short that fits on lawn signs, such as Gilmore's "No Car Tax!"

"Some people wonder why he didn't propose something like a longer school day, which simultaneously appeals to concerns about educational quality and child care," says Robert Holsworth, an expert on Virginia politics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "In terms of ideas, the campaign's been a bit more pinched and cramped than you would have expected out of a guy with Beyer's imagination."