- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Politics watchers in Virginia had expected Attorney General Mark L. Earley to run away with the Republican nomination for governor but with about half of the delegates chosen, Lt. Gov. John H. Hager has made it a tight race.

Both men are in the process of signing up delegates to the state nominating convention in Richmond in June. It's similar to the national conventions, but instead of states, each county and city in sends a delegation. The candidate who wins the floor vote at the convention wins the nomination.

Mr. Earley has maintained a lead in delegates just how much varies as locales' results roll in day after day but he has not run away with the nomination so far. Mr. Hager's wins in Arlington and Prince William counties and his claim to have won in Fairfax County have kept him in the race.

But Mr. Earley's campaigners are charging that Mr. Hager's campaign has signed up a slew of folks who have no intention of going to the convention, as a way to bolster his numbers and keep his candidacy viable.

Mr. Hager's camp responds that they are just broadening the group of folks who go to conventions and that they have every intention of getting their prefiled delegates to Richmond.

All of this will wash clean in Richmond. At that point, prefilings are irrelevant and a prefiled preference isn't binding, so the winner will be the one who turns out more of the folks he signed up.

The great unknown right now is Fairfax County's total which accounts for 14 percent of the statewide delegate total. Mr. Hager announced he won the county by about 230 delegate votes, but the official count isn't complete. The county Board of Elections was to finish the task last night.

Earley supporters say Mr. Hager signed up folks at George Mason University and at Metro stations many of whom aren't registered, many of whom have no intention of being delegates to the convention and even some of whom didn't understand what they were signing.

"The strategy makes perfect sense if you do not have enough support from Republicans to win on the convention floor in June," said Quintin Kendall, a spokesman for the Earley campaign.

Some Earley supporters say the fact that fewer Hager delegates are paying the convention fee than Earley folks is another sign of artificially inflated numbers. The fee isn't mandatory, so anyone can file for free, but they are supposed to have the intention of being in Richmond to serve as a delegate.

But the Hager folks saw it differently.

They had wanted a primary rather than a convention, and Reed Boatright, Mr. Hager's campaign spokesman, said that's why some folks are balking at paying: "I think the only thing the number of checks represent is people resent having to pay $45 or $50 to cast a vote."

Mr. Boatright said Arlington, which neighbors Fairfax, refutes the Earley camp's charges. Mr. Hager easily won Arlington, and had fewer of his filers 50 thrown out than Mr. Earley who had 59.

Staying viable helps a candidate with fund raising and also buys him more time to try to convince his delegates to show up.

"That's the job once March is over begin to motivate them to turn out. If it means we have to provide buses, if it means we have to provide child care," Mr. Boatright said.

Mr. Earley's lead is about equal to Mr. Hager's declared delegates plus those not stating a preference.

The problem for either man is that a protracted fight means the winner can't yet solidify the party base and concentrate on the general election.

Meanwhile Mark R. Warner, the Democrat running unopposed for his party's nomination for governor, is already campaigning in general-election mode. He begins an 11-day statewide campaign trip tomorrow.

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