President Bush yesterday invited Mark L. Earley to the Oval Office to endorse him in his race for the Virginia governorship and praise him for his twin issues of tax cuts and education.
“This man is going to win because he knows a couple of truths — one, that it’s important to let people keep their own money. I appreciate your strong stance on holding the line on cutting the car tax in Virginia. And, secondly, he has prioritized education and he knows full well that if you have a governor who knows how to lead, you can set clear spending priorities,” Mr. Bush said.
The two men shared a brief photo opportunity in the president’s office, followed by a short chat about the campaign. For that, the two were joined by Vice President Richard B. Cheney and White House strategists Karl Rove and Mary Matalin.
The president and Mr. Earley, who resigned as state attorney general once he gained the Republican nomination for governor, found common ground on education and particularly on tax cuts. The first tax-rebate checks, part of the national income-tax cut, have just started going out, and Mr. Earley said that was a good model for Virginia.
“That’s why we want to finish the job we’ve begun on cutting the car tax and do it on time and on target, and then cut the food tax,” he said. “And we want to make sure that we also have the best schools we can in Virginia, which is why we’re focusing on reducing class sizes in targeted classrooms, raising our teachers’ salaries to the national average, and creating opportunities that will empower low-income families to be able to access educational opportunities for their families.”
Mr. Earley said afterward that Mr. Bush has promised to cross the Potomac to campaign with him in September, but his campaign wouldn’t release details of the plans or discuss the president’s potential role in fund raising.
Presidential visits don’t always help. In 1997, President Clinton joined Democratic candidate Donald S. Beyer Jr. at a late-campaign rally in Alexandria, where he told voters not to follow “selfish” motives by voting for Republican candidate James S. Gilmore III and his “no car tax” pledge. Mr. Gilmore easily won, based largely on the car tax.
In a Republican-leaning state such as Virginia, though, Mr. Bush should help Mr. Earley.
The president won Virginia in November with 52 percent of the vote to Democratic candidate Al Gore’s 44 percent, and a June poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research found Mr. Bush maintains a 58 percent approval rating among Virginians. Mr. Bush and Mr. Gilmore, who is now chairman of the Republican National Committee, can also direct national attention and donors to the race.
But a spokesman for Mark R. Warner, Mr. Earley’s Democratic opponent, said the contest will be decided on Virginia issues.
“We know that Mark Earley is going to have every resource he could ever want coming out of the national Republican Party, headed by Jim Gilmore, and the White House, but we feel pretty confident that Virginians are going to reject any attempt to nationalize this race,” said Mo Elleithee, Mr. Warner’s press secretary. “They want this race to not be a referendum on national politics, but to be about Virginia’s future.”
They also feel they have neutralized the car-tax issue this year by promising to cut it within four years —though not necessarily next year, as Mr. Earley has promised.
Yesterday’s event was the first campaign-season photo opportunity Mr. Earley has had with the president. Last month, he was at the White House for a ceremony for leaders in the mentor movement — something close to Mr. Earley’s heart — but he was only a spectator. At that event, the president recognized folks ranging from Michelle Engler, Michigan’s first lady, to athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, but not Mr. Earley.
This time, though, Mr. Earley had the president all to himself for a few minutes — and television cameras to cover his audience.
The photos of the two men together are bound to appear in television commercials and mailings, and Mr. Earley’s campaign staffers were particularly happy to learn that stations in Virginia would be receiving footage from the events.