- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

Virginia Republicans will convene in downtown Richmond this weekend to decide on two candidates who could help define the future of the party and the political leanings of the state as a whole.

The roughly 5,000 delegates attending the 2008 Virginia Republican Convention - to be held tomorrow and Saturday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center - are expected to select former Gov. James S. Gilmore III as the party’s nominee to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner.

Mr. Gilmore is expected to defeat Delegate Robert G. Marshall for the party nomination and the chance to run against former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat. The two Warners are not related.

But his margin of victory remains uncertain and could be a sign of his prospects in the crucial contest against Mr. Warner: The race coincides with this year’s presidential election, in which Virginia could be a swing state.

“The very fact that the Republicans have another uphill climb in a statewide campaign is an indication of a state that has become far more competitive, and it’s a state Republicans can no longer rely on for relatively easy victories,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s not red, it’s not blue, it’s deep purple.”

Mr. Gilmore, 58, served as a county prosecutor before winning the state attorney general’s post in 1993 and then the governorship in 1997.

He has raised roughly $1 million - including a $50,000 loan to himself - compared with Mr. Marshall’s $78,500, and has said publicly he is looking ahead to facing Mr. Warner in the Senate race.

“I think I’ll be the nominee of the party, I don’t think that that’s gonna be an issue,” Mr. Gilmore told editors and reporters at The Washington Times earlier this month. “But we have to get our people to the convention and make sure that they’re there, and that they’re voting. But we see no indication that I won’t be the nominee.”

Mr. Marshall, however, has been an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay rights in the General Assembly. The Prince William County legislator is hoping to motivate conservatives by highlighting Mr. Gilmore’s stances on issues like illegal immigration and abortion that he says run contrary to conservative beliefs.

Mr. Marshall opposes abortion and thinks life begins at conception. Mr. Gilmore has said abortions performed in the first eight weeks after conception should not be illegal.

“Those are the issues that people that sign up to be delegates, they bring it up,” said Mr. Marshall, 64. “Any elected official must serve the concerns of those they represent. You put yourself last, and you put the citizens first.”

A more closely contested convention race likely will be for state party chairman.

The unusually contentious campaign has pitted Chairman John H. Hager against Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick in a race that threatens to divide a party struggling for unity after losing the past two gubernatorial races, a U.S. Senate seat and control of the state Senate.

Mr. Hager, a 71-year-old former lieutenant governor, and Mr. Frederick, a 32-year-old Hispanic in his third term as delegate, represent what some say are two competing factions looking to lead the Republican Party: an old guard looking to re-establish the party through tried-and-true methods and a new movement aiming to overhaul its makeup.

“I think the question here is whether the old guard is in the last throes of its dominance, or if this battle will signify a future change for the GOP and its leadership in Virginia,” said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

In a recent clash, Mr. Hager accused Mr. Frederick of “resorting to outright lies” for saying in a mailing that the party chairman was endorsed by Mark Warner at this year’s Shad Planking fish fry in Wakefield.

Mr. Hager, who served as homeland security director in Mr. Warner’s administration, said a remark made by Mr. Warner at the fish fry was “a bad joke” about Mr. Hager’s son marrying the daughter of President Bush, and not an endorsement. Henry Hager married Jenna Bush on May 10.

“And this is the central problem with Jeff Frederick’s campaign for chairman,” Mr. Hager said in an e-mail to supporters. “He will say anything - launch any attack - to satisfy his own ambition.”

Mr. Frederick cited a story in the Petersburg, Va., Progress-Index reporting that Mr. Warner endorsed Mr. Hager at the event. He said yesterday the party is ready for a change from the “top-down” management approach used by Mr. Hager.

“We’re in big, big trouble with what we have coming down the pipeline here in terms of what elections are coming and what our chances are,” Mr. Frederick said.

“We don’t have time anymore to keep trying the same thing over and over again and think somehow things are going to happen.”

The two contests will be settled Saturday.

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