Virginians 'Think Local' in Choosing a Governor

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

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!"

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."

Mr. Holsworth suggests Democrats in other states should look at Beyer's handling of the education issue, and try some new approaches. He also notes that Gilmore has shrewdly avoided the voucher issue. Suburban voters, who pay a premium to live near good schools, he says, don't like the idea of the government giving people money so they can send their kids to private school.

Beyer has also suffered from an ailment that has hindered Virginia Republicans in recent elections: divided-party syndrome. This year, former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder - whom Beyer served under during his first term as lieutenant governor - declined to endorse Beyer or help him campaign.

The mercurial former Governor Wilder, who is African-American, could have given Beyer a boost to energize the black vote, which represents about 18 percent of the electorate. But even though voters don't wait to be told whom to vote for, Mr. Wilder's move struck a blow to Beyer.

The Republicans, for once, are all singing from the same score. Gilmore, a moderate, has secured the active support of Virginia party leaders ranging from Sen. John Warner (who in the past actively opposed the candidacies of conservatives Oliver North and Mike Farris) to Christian Coalition president Pat Robertson, who has given Gilmore $100,000.

THE role of Christian conservatives isn't likely to be key in this election, even though Virginia is the home base of both the Christian Coalition and Jerry Falwell. Gilmore isn't considered "part of the fold;" on the abortion issue, he supports a woman's right to choose through eight weeks of pregnancy. Beyer is more liberal on abortion.

But even if the religious, activist wing of the party isn't necessarily energized by Gilmore's candidacy, the GOP candidate for attorney general - Mark Earley - is closely linked to the religious right, and the party's Christian foot soldiers are turning out for him.

For a while, Beyer ran ads slamming Gilmore's link to Mr. Robertson, but that only riled the right and Beyer dropped that tactic.

From the start, Beyer has fought an uphill battle. Virginia is a Republican state, with voter registration favoring the GOP by about 8 points. And as a native of northern Virginia, which represents only about a quarter of the electorate, Beyer has failed to win over the rest of the state, particularly in his stand against the tobacco industry.

State Del. Ted Bennett (D) of Halifax says Beyer blew it last spring when he came to tobacco country in southern Virginia and expressed support for federal regulation of tobacco. "I'm despondent," says Mr. Bennett, expressing his concern that Republicans could take over the state's House of Delegates.

Back in Alexandria, just over the line from Washington, commuter Kathy Smith says she's not worried about how local government would make up for lost revenue if the car tax were repealed.

"I just paid a $300 tax on my '96 Camry," she grouses. "That's one month of day care."

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