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.
M. Boyd Marcus, Mr. Gilmore's longtime confidant and a consultant to his presidential race, said "moderate and liberal Republicans" will divide their support among Mr. Giuliani, Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney. And the party's resolute right wing will support Mr. Gilmore, he said.
Mr. Marcus thinks Mr. Gilmore has a chance if he can raise "seed money" to sustain his campaign most of this year.
The first fundraising event of Mr. Gilmore's presidential campaign in Richmond last month raised about $200,000.
The last little-known, out-of-office governor to become president was Jimmy Carter of Georgia, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. That was 31 years ago, before 24-hour cable news and the Internet, when a candidate on shoestring financing could spend years building support in Iowa, New Hampshire and other pivotal states unnoticed by his rivals.
"The first thing is getting name recognition, to be able to sell yourself, and that's where Mr. Gilmore's at an enormous disadvantage. It's not just his ideology -- it's whether those conservative voters have ever heard of him," Mr. Black said.
He also said a presidential race could do Mr. Gilmore more harm than good if his real goal is to set himself up for a potential Senate race next year or another run for governor in 2009.
"Because if he really flops, he gets no money at all," Mr. Black said.