- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

WARRENTON, Va. — Conventional wisdom would indicate that a gubernatorial candidate who lacks the support of his party leaders, fundraising and name recognition would have no shot at winning.

George B. Fitch, 57, is the first to say voters must abandon that kind of thinking. After all, the mayor of Warrenton is no stranger to what seems like an impossible challenge.

He helped found and coached the first Jamaican bobsled team by stringing together unlikely athletes from the Caribbean island who never had seen snow to compete in the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. The team inspired the 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings.” (The team did not win, but made a decent showing in the competition.)

Mr. Fitch is running against former state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore in the June 14 Republican primary. Mr. Kilgore, the longtime party favorite, has the endorsement of all of the state’s Republican leaders and has amassed a huge campaign war chest.

“It’s a classical contest between grass roots and grass tops,” Mr. Fitch said. “In order to understand it, get that conventional thinking cap off… I believe you can succeed if you’ve got a much better message and you are a more credible messenger.”

Mr. Kilgore has all but ignored his long-shot challenger, refusing to debate Mr. Fitch and asserting that Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat running unopposed for his party’s nomination, is his lone rival in the gubernatorial race.

The general election is Nov. 8.

Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kaine kicked off their campaigns with hopscotching airplane tours of Virginia and have spent large amounts of money on television ads. The Kilgore and Kaine campaigns have raised nearly $20 million combined. Mr. Fitch has raised less than $200,000.

Mr. Fitch is campaigning by the thousands — of miles, that is. He will have canvassed at least 13,000 miles of Virginia by June 14, walking in parades and meeting voters and shaking hands.

He has done no advertising and will not be mailing any campaign fliers to voters. “It has to be unconventional,” he said.

As he walked around Warrenton on a recent afternoon and waved to residents, the lanky Mr. Fitch proudly outlined his accomplishments as the town’s mayor.

Mr. Fitch says he thinks he can run the state like a business, as he has done in Warrenton. Since being elected in 1998, he has eliminated more than $3 million in debt and has greatly reduced real estate taxes. He was re-elected mayor in 2002. Mr. Fitch says he can eliminate waste from the budget and promised never to raise taxes if elected.

Verne Harnish, a small-business owner in Ashburn, Va., who started the Web site www.smallbizforfitch.com, says he supports Mr. Fitch because of his proven record in Warrenton.

“What our state needs is somebody who knows how to get something done,” Mr. Harnish said. “I judge people based on their results, not on their words.”

Mr. Fitch also has preserved Warrenton’s character by focusing on heritage tourism to celebrate the state’s rich history.

But naysayers are quick to point out that achieving success in Warrenton — a town of about 8,000 — does not translate to popularity across Virginia.

“Kilgore is in a very good position to beat a virtually unknown rival,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

Mr. Fitch said many Republicans loyal to Mr. Kilgore treat him like he is ruining a coronation, and he criticized the state leadership and the Republican National Committee for taking sides. “Good Republicans adhere to and believe our platform — that we are the party of freedom, diversity, competition and debate, with favoritism to none,” Mr. Fitch said.

Few think Mr. Fitch will win the nomination, but political observers think his showing could be a litmus test for Mr. Kilgore.

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Kilgore needs a landslide to signal he has the full backing of the party.

“If he can’t clear 80 percent, he’s in trouble,” Mr. Sabato said.

Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said the worst case scenario for Mr. Kilgore is that Mr. Fitch would embarrass him by doing better than expected.

“It’s a no-brainer in terms of who is going to win,” Mr. Rozell said.

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican, who is running for governor as an independent in November, has endorsed Mr. Fitch because he thinks Mr. Kilgore leans too far to the right.

Mr. Fitch said if he fails to win the nomination, he will vote for Mr. Kilgore in the general election “because he is a Republican.”

Mr. Fitch, born and raised in China by his missionary parents, served 11 years in the Foreign Service. He came to Virginia in 1973.

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