- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

Democratic presidential candidates have begun courting Virginia voters with coffee shop meetings, high-profile endorsements and grass-roots campaigning because the state’s primary will be held earlier than usual next year.

Gov. Mark Warner, Democrat, will sign legislation today that will move up the date of the state’s primary, from April to Feb. 10. As a result, Virginia Democratic leaders say they hope their state will figure more prominently in the spring’s presidential primaries.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has an active grass-roots organization that has held several informational sessions, known as meet-ups, to greet and talk to voters.

“They are informal gatherings at local venues like coffee shops,” said Charles Goin, chairman of the Virginians for Dean committee.

Mr. Goin said these gatherings, which have been held throughout the state, have attracted five to 100 people at one time.

“Virginia is a very moderate state and has gotten more so over the years,” said Mr. Goin, who also serves as a member of the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee. “If we can elect a black Democratic governor [L. Douglas Wilder] and [Mr. Warner] in the current political environment, then Governor Dean can win Virginia.”

In the coming weeks, Virginians for Dean, which is not affiliated with the national Dean for America committee, will begin visiting shopping malls to ask voters for signatures to get Mr. Dean on the ballot for Virginia’s primary.

When the General Assembly passed legislation to change the primary date, observers speculated that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina would benefit most because he is from a neighboring state. So far, Mr. Edwards has been relatively quiet.

Jennifer Palmieri, press secretary for the Edwards for President campaign, said the organization in Virginia is nascent. But she said the organization plans to announce its state chairman as well as endorsements from state elected officials within the next few weeks.

“We think Senator Edwards will do well in Virginia because he, himself, was raised and had a career in the South, and will connect well with Southern voters,” Miss Palmieri said. She noted that Mr. Edwards’ campaign recently held a fund-raiser at the home of state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington Democrat.

The campaign of Sen. Bob Graham of Florida acknowledged that it is focusing on Virginia because of the earlier primary date. Mr. Graham’s team has set up a campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia.

“Since Virginia is moving its primary up, it serves us better to have an office here that is both national and for Virginia,” said Steven Jarding, communications director for the Graham for President campaign. “It’s a matter of convenience.”

Mr. Graham plans to tour the state July 16 and announce several endorsements from “Virginia elected officials and celebrities,” said Mr. Jarding, who worked on Mr. Warner’s 2001 campaign.

He declined to offer specific details but said Mr. Graham would spend a considerable amount of time in the state that weekend, likely starting in the southwestern parts of the state and finishing in Northern Virginia.

“Bob Graham is the best candidate for Virginia for the same reason he is the best candidate for Iowa, New Hampshire and Montana; he is the only candidate who can beat George Bush,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a rural liaison to the Graham campaign and the Warner campaign in 2001.

Mr. Warner has not endorsed any candidate. When asked about it earlier this week, he told The Washington Times he was still reviewing his options and would consider making an endorsement before the primary.

Mr. Warner said the earlier primary benefits Virginia voters because they would have a chance to see for themselves who the better candidates are, instead of being left out of the process.

Virginia follows in the footsteps of the District, where officials changed the primary date from early May to Jan. 13. The move makes the District’s primary the first in the nation.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has endorsed Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

“Joe offered to help me when I was a little-known candidate seeking to become lieutenant governor of Virginia,” said Mr. Kaine when he announced his endorsement last month.

Mr. Lieberman does not have a Virginia headquarters separate from his national campaign headquarters in Arlington.

The other candidates, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Kucinich, do not have organizations established in Virginia. Telephone calls to their offices were not returned.

However, Mr. Kerry has named Lawrence H. Framme III, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, as his state chairman.

In a recent poll conducted by MoveOn.org, a progressive organization founded by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 1998 to give ordinary Americans a voice, Mr. Dean received 44 percent of the more than 317,000 voters polled. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio came in second, with 23 percent, followed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, with 16 percent. The other six candidates were in the single digits.

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