- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2001

The Virginia governor's race is entering the big Labor Day push for votes with Democrat Mark R. Warner holding a significant lead in the polls over Republican Mark L. Earley — and the Republican Party faithful beginning to wonder if Mr. Earley will close the gap.
Both candidates, along with their ticket-mates for attorney general and lieutenant governor, are in the western part of the state today for traditional Labor Day parades in Buena Vista and Covington.
The most recent polls show Mr. Warner with an 11-point lead among likely voters about the same numbers that surfaced in private campaign polls which suggests Mr. Warner has picked up six points since June's Mason-Dixon poll.
Republican Party loyalists are starting to ask why their candidate isn't registering with voters. The race, and Mr. Earley's failure to deliver a winning message, are the topics of conversation at every fund-raiser or party gathering.
"If thinks he can catch him, he's running backwards," says one Republican strategist.
"In the absence of message, [Mr. Warner's] money is going to triumph, and in this race right now Mark Earley has no message," another activist says. "There's a clear path to victory, but the way they're going, they aren't going to get there."
Some associated with the campaign dismiss such complaints.
"In over 20 years in this business, I've never been in a campaign where somebody wasn't grumbling about something," says Dick Leggitt, a Republican adviser.
Other campaign advisers say the race is exactly where they expect it to be, given Mr. Warner's impressive campaign bank account and the money he has spent on early-season advertising.
"Our challenge is not to have our message drowned out by Mark Warner's super-sized bullhorn," said Ed Matricardi, executive director for the state Republican Party, who said the plan always has been to survive the summer and make a stretch run to the Nov. 6 election.
But the Warner campaign sees early signs of desperation in Republican ranks.
"They're not afraid of our money, they're afraid of our message," said Mo Elleithee, campaign spokesman for Mr. Warner. "That's why they've launched into a negative attack. When you don't have a positive message to sell, you go on the attack. That's the politics of old, and that's what Mark Earley is doing."
So far, the race has followed a predictable course.
Neither man appears to have a "silver bullet" strategy like the "no car tax" platform of Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, or the parole-abolition policy that helped elect the previous governor, George F. Allen, also a Republican.
Mr. Warner and Mr. Earley have rolled out policies on issues from education to agriculture, and from open-space preservation to transportation. These issues have stirred support regionally, or among certain interest groups, but none has dominated the discourse.
Both campaigns repeatedly beat an increasingly old horse — Mr. Gilmore's budget impasse with the Republican-dominated legislature this year that left the car-tax cut on track, but also left public employees without pay raises and some cultural institutions without state funding.
Republicans focus on the car-tax victory, while Democrats focus on the impasse, which has revealed a division in the Republican ranks.
Last week was typical for the two candidates. Both released policy announcements: Mr. Warner said he wanted more attention paid to child-care issues and Mr. Earley proposed a sales-tax holiday for back-to-school items. Both also had photo-opportunity events in Northern Virginia in front of gaggles of children.
Republican state Delegate Anne G. "Panny" Rhodes of Richmond, who often has been at odds with Mr. Earley and the Gilmore administration, came out in support of Mr. Warner last week, which gave the Democrats a boost.
Meanwhile, Republicans began airing a new radio advertisement declaring the Democratic ticket the most liberal the state has ever seen. Democrats responded by saying Republicans must be desperate if they resorted to that strategy as early as August.
Mr. Earley and Mr. Warner have agreed to three more debates, with a fourth in negotiations. Only one of the certain debates will be widely televised, and none will be in the campaign's final four weeks.
In the first debate, held in July at the Virginia Bar Association's annual summer meeting, the two candidates agreed on quite a bit.
That sense of agreement hasn't changed all that much, so without a "silver bullet" message to voters, the race will be won by the side with the most disciplined and organized campaign and through paid advertising.
Mr. Warner, 46, a businessman whose worth has been estimated by business publications to be between $200 million and $250 million, has spent millions of dollars on "inoculation" television ads spots that present him in a favorable light so voters will be less receptive to negative attacks on him later.
Mr. Earley, 47, and the Republicans, who didn't have a clear candidate until the June primary, have played catch-up in fund raising. They have had limited television advertising, and instead have put their money into radio and direct mail.
Mr. Warner's strategy apparently is paying off.
Mr. Matricardi said Mr. Warner was leading on paper because more Virginians recognized Mr. Warner from his television ads when the latest polls were conducted in August. He said that will change in the final weeks as Mr. Earley begins his television advertising and Republicans continue to try to define the Democratic ticket as out of touch with Virginia values.
"Name I.D. on Election Day is what counts, not name I.D. on Labor Day. And I predict that by Election Day Virginians will know who Mark Earley is. I also predict that by Election Day Virginians are going to know who Mark Warner is," Mr. Matricardi said.
Republicans have some strong cards still to play. The party organization in the state is excellent, and both President Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney will attend fund-raisers for Mr. Earley this month.
Republicans point out that all of their last three candidates for governor once were down substantially in the polls, with two of them winning and the third, J. Marshall Coleman in 1989, losing by less than half a percent.
But if others polls, due out soon, show Mr. Earley losing more ground, Republican activists will change their question about a September to October surge for Mr. Earley from "when" to "if."

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