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Virginia Governor's Race Heats Up

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Virginia Governor's Race Heats Up

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Virginia Governor's Race Heats Up

Virginia Governor's Race Heats Up

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The race for governor of Virginia is seen as a referendum on outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who may run for president in 2008. Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore are battling for Warner's job.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in the US, only two states are holding elections for governor in November. One is New Jersey and the other is the state where we go next. Virginia forbids its governors from running for a second consecutive term. So Governor Mark Warner is trying to make sure his lieutenant governor gets the job. It won't be easy, because Warner is a Democrat. He represents a state that voted twice for George W. Bush. NPR's Brian Naylor begins our report in the suburbs, where many of the votes are.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Dixie Bones is the name of the barbecue restaurant in one of northern Virginia's rapidly growing, mostly Republican outer suburbs.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

NAYLOR: During this lunch hour, though, Dixie Bones is a Democratic stronghold. It's been taken over by supporters of Tim Kaine, the state's lieutenant governor who's now running for the top job.

Lieutenant Governor TIM KAINE (Gubernatorial Candidate): I'm a scuffler, folks. I'm no rock star. I'm a scuffler. I've been in four contested races. I was the underdog in all of them, and at the end, in all of those races, though I was the underdog, I managed to win.

NAYLOR: Kaine's mention of a rock star may or may not have been an allusion to Governor Mark Warner, who is clearly leaving some big shoes to fill. Warner, who remains extremely popular and who is now thought to be exploring a bid for the White House, helped restore Virginia's financial health. Warner has been campaigning extensively, trying to assure that part of his legacy will be the election of his number two.

Governor MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): And I can assure you, every step of the way on every battle that we fought, Tim Kaine has been there, side by side, helping move Virginia forward.

NAYLOR: Before being elected lieutenant governor, the 47-year-old Kaine served as mayor of Richmond. His signature campaign proposal is a call for state-funded pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds.

Lt. Gov. KAINE: What I've noticed about our state budget is we spend so much money on remedial education, social services for kids who are poor performers. We're spending all this money on the back end, and I'm convinced, if we spend a portion of it on the front end, we won't have to repair kids later after they've gone off the rails.

NAYLOR: Polls indicate that education and Virginia's clogged roads are the top concerns of voters, but the Republican nominee, former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, has been focusing on exploiting Kaine's personal opposition to the death penalty. This Kilgore ad features a father whose son and daughter-in-law were murdered.

(Soundbite of Kilgore ad)

Mr. STANLEY ROSENBLUTH (Virginians United Against Crime): Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times. Being as liberal as he is in the death penalty, he's not representing everybody in the state. I don't trust Tim Kaine when it comes to the death penalty.

NAYLOR: The Hitler reference is based on what Kaine told reporters from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He was asked whether he thought figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Idi Amin should have been executed. Kaine, who is Catholic, responded, quote, "They don't deserve to live in a civil society," but, in his words, "God grants life and God should take it away." The ad has led to harsh criticism from many newspaper editorials as well as the Anti-Defamation League. Kilgore defends it.

Mr. JERRY KILGORE (Former Attorney General, Virginia): It was a question he was asked by the press. You know, what is--knowing that the press asked him the question, `Should Adolf Hitler, Stalin or Idi Amin have been executed?' and he said no, and then I use it in the ad; they criticize me. That's beyond the pale. It's the liberal media taking up for their liberal soul mate.

NAYLOR: Kilgore is 44 and is more folksy in his campaign manner than is Kaine. A native of southwestern Virginia, Kilgore spoke at a fund-raiser held at the Martinsville Speedway, site of last weekend's NASCAR race.

Mr. KILGORE: When you talk about NASCAR fans, you're talking about true Virginians and true Americans. The most patriotic people that I've ever met are the NASCAR fans.

NAYLOR: One of those fans is Frank Foster, who worked at a textile mill in Martinsville for 30 years till it shut down a few years ago, and is now employed at a grocery store. He says he likes Kilgore because he's conservative and one issue in particular stands out.

Mr. FRANK FOSTER (Kilgore Supporter): He supports the Second Amendment rights. And I'm an NRA member, have been since 1980, and I firmly believe in them, and that's why I believe in him.

NAYLOR: Polls show the race to be a toss-up. One wild card is the candidacy of State Senator Russell Potts, a Republican who's running as an Independent. Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, says the race may turn on whether Democrat Kaine can make it a referendum on Governor Warner.

Professor MARK ROZELL (George Mason University): For some voters, it is indeed about staying the course and keeping the policies of the current, popular administration. But for many other voters, perhaps, it's sticking with their principal partisan loyalties, and that is with the Republicans, who are the dominant party in this state.

NAYLOR: Both parties will be watching the results of this race and trying to see if it has any implications for 2006. With Democrat Jon Corzine self-financing his bid to become governor of New Jersey, Democrats are free to focus their attention and money on Tim Kaine in Virginia. Republicans would like nothing better to elect Jerry Kilgore and possibly put a dent in Mark Warner's presidential hopes at the same time. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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