RICHMOND — James S. Gilmore III, a former Virginia governor, is running for president, taking on the better-known and better-financed Rudolph W. Giuliani and John McCain for the Republican nomination, though polls show that few voters outside Virginia ever heard of him.
When asked whether he’s serious or just plowing ground for a statewide comeback, Mr. Gilmore gave an impatient stare and a lecture about Republicans being hungry for his brand of tax-cutting conservatism, then a reminder that this is not the first time people have underestimated this overachieving son of a butcher.
“The people I’m speaking to know me very well,” he said. “They’ve watched my history, my career. … Let’s talk about that.”
In just over four years in the mid-1990s, Mr. Gilmore went from elected local prosecutor in a conservative Richmond suburb to state attorney general, then to governor. He overwhelmingly won the governor’s race in 1997 on his vow to end a property tax on personal cars.
He said that at each step his unwavering pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax resolve won him new followers — conservatives who vote in Republican primaries. He also rose to national prominence by becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, the Republican Governors Association and a national panel on terrorism.
Mr. Gilmore said he is the only faithful conservative in a Republican field led by wafflers, infidels and even liberals.
He said Mr. McCain, an Arizona senator, has made his reputation as a maverick, not as a conservative. Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, is “for gun control, he’s for gay marriage, he’s pro-choice,” Mr. Gilmore said.
On former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mr. Gilmore said he has been “a very liberal Northeast Republican.”
“The moment is there for a candidacy such as mine — a mainstream Reagan conservative,” he said.
When there was national buzz about Virginia presidential prospects, Mr. Gilmore was not among them.
Former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, unexpectedly abandoned his exploratory campaign in October, citing family concerns. A month later, Republican Sen. George Allen fumbled away a re-election that once seemed certain and ended his presidential hopes.
After the Republican Party lost control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, Mr. Gilmore emerged in December from five years out of politics with news he would run for president, which surprised as many state Republicans as Democrats.
“It’s pretty far-fetched, but when you look at how many different factions of presidential candidates are out there, I guess he’s as good as anyone,” said Mike Woods, a Virginia lobbyist and Republican adviser.
Many in the conservative wing of the state Republicans Party consider Mr. Gilmore, 57, a hero who promised tax cuts and delivered them.
However, centrists such as state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, think Mr. Gilmore is a rigid and unforgiving ideologue who, by needlessly warring with Senate Republicans, gave Democrats a crucial foothold in the state elections of 2001, just one year after Republicans had captured every statewide elected office or institution of government.