- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

After eight years of astonishing success in Virginia, the Republican winning streak will end Tuesday if Mark L. Earley doesn't overtake Democrat Mark R. Warner in the race for Virginia governor.

Mr. Earley has never led in a poll, and recent surveys point to a substantial Earley loss.

Still, neither campaign can guess what voters will do in a post-September 11 world and Republicans are hoping a big "get-out-the-vote" effort combined with an endorsement commercial from New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani will bring them victory. The finger-pointing has begun, though, and everyone has a theory on how Republicans arrived at the brink of losing.

Mr. Earley's staffers say a sinking economy gave them little to work with and a tough nomination battle gave them little time to do it. Republican strategists in Virginia blame poor organization and decision-making in the campaign. The pundits blame this year's budget impasse for tarring Republicans. And Warner campaign staffers credit their own strong operation and say Mr. Earley never presented a credible message.

Each of those had something to do with it, says Mark Rozell, a professor at Catholic University and longtime observer of Virginia politics.

"It's a number of factors outside [Earleys] control," he said. "The budget situation, September 11, not being able therefore to bring George Bush into the state to campaign for him, Mark Warner's superior organization and money, of course, the transportation issue, where I think Earley took a principled stand but is paying for it politically, and then a fairly lackluster campaign where the candidate didn't tell a good story."

Republicans went into this election knowing they lacked the sure-fire issues of abolishing parole and cutting the car tax issues that carried them to victory in 1993 and 1997.

In the last eight years, Republicans have won seven of nine statewide elections, including a sweep of the state's governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general spots in 1997. And last year, George F. Allen whose 1993 governor's race victory began the streak unseated U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, putting Republicans in every statewide elected office.

Earlier this year, Republicans completed a realignment of the state's congressional delegation, leaving it with seven Republicans and a conservative independent to only three Democrats. Add to that Republicans' coup in 1999, gaining control of the General Assembly, and Virginia Republicans can claim one of the best runs in political history.

But Mr. Earley hasn't capitalized.

He came out of his nomination fight with Lt. Gov. John H. Hager with only $100,000 in the bank, and Republican strategists say the issues he focused on during his term as attorney general weren't enough to run a campaign.

He searched for a coherent message until September 11 delivered one to him as a former attorney general, he touted himself as the man to lead the state through the future. Two weeks later, he dropped that in favor of an anti-tax message.

Still, Mr. Earley was never willing to draw clear lines on the issue the way current Gov. James S. Gilmore III did, and the Warner campaign argued Mr. Earley had no credibility on the issue.

Mr. Earley also never gained the support among black voters or labor groups that was supposed to mark him as a new kind of Republican candidate.

But Mr. Earley's campaign spokesman, David Botkins, said their difficulties stem from things beyond their control not least of which is a wealthy opponent who has been preparing for this election for years.

"Mark Warner's been running for governor completely unencumbered for five years. If you go back to the [1996 U.S.] Senate race where he was running actively, and courting voters and spending $10 million, you can say seven years," Mr. Botkins said.

And there's the budget impasse, in which Mr. Gilmore sparred with the state Senate over how far to advance the car-tax cut. In the stalemate a first in Virginia history no budget amendments were passed, public employees went without pay raises and many cultural institutions didn't get state aid.

Pundits also say the state, though moving Republican, isn't as solidly behind the party as the last eight years suggest, particularly because so much of the state's population growth is in Northern Virginia.

For his part, Mr. Warner started laying the groundwork years ago. He began charitable foundations and established venture capital firms throughout the state, giving him a reason to network and a reason to make local appearances. His campaign has also been mostly free from errors.

Republicans say if Mr. Earley loses, their greatest regret will be missing the chance to nail the coffin on Democrats in Virginia.

Another Republican sweep this year would empty Democrats' stable of willing and viable statewide candidates. But if Mr. Warner wins and brings one or both of his ticket mates along, he has positioned himself for a 2006 Senate race, and the others would be the front-runners for the 2005 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

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