- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2001

RICHMOND — In April, Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III challenged the candidates battling to succeed him to make the continued phaseout of the car tax the central issue of the campaign this year. Instead, Mr. Gilmore himself has become the issue.
Republican Mark Earley views his promise to continue Mr. Gilmore's brand of working-class, tax-cutting conservative politics as the best way to keep the governor's office in Republican hands for a third consecutive term.
Democrat Mark Warner says the governor's unbending management style recklessly plunged the state into a humiliating impasse that left the legislature unable to agree on a budget for the first time and threw state agencies and employees into fiscal chaos.
Undisputed is the popularity of Mr. Gilmore's 1997 pledge to eliminate the despised property tax that localities levy on personal cars and pickup trucks. Poll after poll has shown strong support for rolling it back.
Mr. Gilmore's popularity remained respectable in the most recent independent poll, released last month. The Mason-Dixon Political Media Research survey showed that 56 percent approved of his performance, up from 52 percent in the same poll in March, after a bitter winter standoff with Republican senators over the timetable for the car-tax phaseout.
"Gilmore has become controversial but not radioactive. He has a narrow majority behind him, but I think it's a pretty big risk for Earley to link himself too closely with him. Potentially, he could end up inheriting Gilmore's enemies and not his friends," said one unidentified political observer.
That possibility was evident Tuesday when Mr. Gilmore addressed hundreds of educators. Seated for lunch at round tables across a ballroom larger than a basketball court, some who sat facing away from the podium refused to turn and face Mr. Gilmore as he spoke. When he ended his remarks, those same people — perhaps a sixth of the crowd — remained seated as the rest stood to applaud.
Mr. Warner's advisers say their research shows voters are weary of the lingering melodrama in Richmond and leery about management of Virginia's finances.
"If you're looking for a silver bullet, it's not going to be something like a slogan or a specific goody to give people. The silver bullet in this campaign is leadership and accountability in state government. That's not only what people care about, but what they see as lacking this year in Richmond," said Warner campaign spokesman Mo Elliethee.
Mr. Earley, nevertheless, knows Virginians have backed the Republicans' anti-tax messages in every statewide race except one since 1994, and he is sticking to the script.
At a gathering of high-tech investors in Richmond earlier this month, he rattled off Mr. Gilmore's list of successes, from heading a congressionally appointed panel that recommended a moratorium on taxing Internet transactions to creating the nation's first Cabinet-level technology czar.
He lauds Mr. Gilmore — and former Gov. George Allen before him — for creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the state, many of them in Virginia's burgeoning Internet and semiconductor industries.
However, Mr. Earley also offers subtle stylistic contrasts with Mr. Gilmore: a 10-year legislative career that taught him the necessity of compromise. As commonwealth's attorney in Henrico, state attorney general and governor, Mr. Gilmore always directed policy; he never served in a legislative body where debate and consensus determine outcome.
"I learned early on that unless you forge personal relationships not only with people in the other party but with those in your own party, you can't get anything done," Mr. Earley told the room full of venture capitalists.
He made his clearest distinction yet with Mr. Gilmore at a debate with Mr. Warner earlier this month, when he said he would have kept legislators from leaving Richmond rather than accept a budget impasse.
Mr. Earley has to be careful, however, because he will need substantial financial help from the Republican Party to match Mr. Warner's personal fortune of $200 million, and Mr. Gilmore chairs the Republican National Committee.

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