Election '05 gives Democrats hope

Two big wins energize the party. Can 'fiscal restraint' be their issue?

Nanoseconds after the '05 elections had concluded, the spin war began.

To Democrats, the most-watched contest of this election cycle, the Virginia governor's race, was nothing less than a referendum on President Bush - who lost.

To Republicans, the Democratic victory in red Virginia (and in blue New Jersey) had no national implication, instead representing an endorsement of the status quo and the importance of local issues.

The truth, analysts say, lies somewhere else. The races do have a national implication: Democrats are pumped up, especially by the victory of Tim Kaine in Virginia - and even more so after Mr. Bush's futile last-minute campaign appearance for Republican Jerry Kilgore, who lost by an unexpectedly wide margin of 6 points. For the Democrats, any news point that continues the theme of "bad times for Bush" helps build momentum toward next November's congressional elections, and helps the party recruit strong candidates.

Spin aside, there's a danger in Tuesday's results for both parties. "Inevitably, both parties will misinterpret [the elections]," says independent pollster Del Ali. "The Democrats will simply think that all they have to do is say, 'We're not them.' ... By the same token, what I'm hearing Republicans say is, 'Our candidates have to be more conservative. We have to energize our base.' "

Perhaps the biggest winner out of Mr. Kaine's victory is Mark Warner, soon-to-be former governor of Virginia. By all appearances - including a trip next week to New Hampshire, host of the first presidential primary - he is thinking of running for president. If Kaine's victory is in large part an endorsement of Mr. Warner's four years as governor, then it may also be evidence that the Democrats' successful model of running centrist Southern governors for president is not dead.

And if Democrats are looking for policy lessons out of Warner's stewardship of Virginia, they need look no further than an area that used to be a Republican strength: fiscal responsibility.

"What Mark Warner helped to do is transform the political culture of a red state and make it far more amenable to Democratic perspectives," says Bob Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Clearly, in Virginia and in the South, Democrats have found it successful to run as the fiscally responsible party. Given all the current spending by the Bush administration, there's an opportunity for that message to resonate nationally."

For Warner, "fiscal responsibility" translated into spending cuts in some areas and raising taxes in others. He heads for the finish line of his term with approval ratings above 70 percent. Kaine, the current lieutenant governor, benefited from Warner's record. He even won in conservative Virginia Beach, which Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had lost by 30,000 votes in 2004.

Another lesson from the '05 governors' races is that negative campaigning carries risks. In Virginia, Mr. Kilgore raised eyebrows with his ads pounding hard on Kaine's opposition to the death penalty, despite Kaine's repeated assurances that he would continue to follow state law. Kilgore suffered a major backlash for his ad claiming that Kaine would even spare Adolf Hitler from execution.

In New Jersey, late-breaking ads featuring criticism of Democrat Jon Corzine by his ex-wife also turned off voters.

But in Virginia, the focus on Kaine's antideath-penalty stance led to discussion of his deep Catholic faith - a rare recent instance of a Democrat who seemed to beat his Republican opponent on the faith question. Kilgore, a religious conservative, seemed reluctant to make faith a strong part of his message.

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