- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

Virginia Republicans must decide next weekend whether to nominate a candidate for governor by convention or primary in 2001 and in doing so, they may also give one candidate an edge in the race for the nomination.

Conventional wisdom says that in a nominating convention the more conservative candidate in this case Attorney General Mark L. Earley will have the inside track. But if the party chooses to hold a primary, Lt. Gov. John H. Hager could be more competitive.

The decision will be made by 79 members of the party's state central committee when Republicans convene in Virginia Beach on June 2. It's a perfect example of how inside decisions have a dramatic effect on the big picture.

Sen. John W. Warner and three of the state's Republican congressmen weighed in with a letter released yesterday, in which the four lawmakers urged the central committee members to support a primary.

"When we nominate by primary we win. We have not lost any statewide race in the decade of the '90s after nomination by primary," wrote Mr. Warner, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Rep. Herbert H. Bateman and Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr.

A primary would be open to all registered voters, while a convention would be decided by 20,000 or so party faithful usually more conservative than primary voters as a whole who would show up.

A primary attracts a broader range of people, gives the winning candidate a big media boost and can build the party, argues Dick Leggitt, a Hager adviser, who says the Earley camp is pushing for a convention.

"Since Gov. [George F.] Allen and Gov. [James S.] Gilmore, we've been talking about inclusion and the big tent. Now Mark Earley wants to go back to a pup tent," Mr. Leggitt said.

Earley staffers say they aren't pushing for one way or the other, but they disagree with the arguments the Hager camp is making in favor of a primary.

"Roll the dice in any way you want, the [nomination] result is going to be the same, and therefore it really is a decision for the party to make," said Quintin Kendall, Mr. Earley's political director.

Mr. Kendall also says a primary could be expensive and divisive in a race where every penny and every vote might be needed. Multimillionaire Mark R. Warner, who is not related to John Warner, currently has a clear path to the Democratic nomination for governor.

Mark Rozell, a professor at Catholic University in the District, said Mr. Earley might be just as well served by a primary. He won a primary for his current attorney general position in 1997 and was the highest vote-getter overall in the 1997 general election, besting even Mr. Gilmore.

Not everyone thinks the decision between primary and convention matters so much.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and longtime observer of state politics, said the record shows both conventions and primaries produce victories and losses for Republicans. He said he's not convinced it's a critical element.

The Republicans' decision will apply to nominations for attorney general and lieutenant governor.

The dynamic is somewhat different particularly since GOP candidates for those positions are not facing a general election opponent who can spend like Mark Warner. Still, a convention could favor the more conservative candidates in those races.

State Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican, who is exploring a bid for lieutenant governor, said she thinks she can compete in either process. But she said a primary could help her draw in some of the minority constituencies she's cultivated.

Whatever the Republicans' decision, Democrats don't see a gain for themselves one way or the other, said Kenneth R. Plum, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Democrats are holding their convention the same weekend, though delegates to their convention won't have the same big decisions to make. The party will back Al Gore as presidential nominee and back Sen. Charles S. Robb, the incumbent, who is being challenged by Mr. Allen.

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