U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III knows that his popularity in Northern Virginia would help him in a campaign for the Senate but hurt him in the state’s more conservative, southern regions.
“I am not going to back off my record,” Mr. Davis has said. “It’s not going to please everybody, but I am who I am.”
That approach has helped Mr. Davis, 58, win 11 races in a region that has been an Achilles’ heel for fellow Republicans.
Last year, Sen. George Allen lost in Northern Virginia by about 120,000 votes and handed his seat to a Democrat, James H. Webb Jr.
Mr. Davis’ record has not always pleased conservative Republicans, who will play a pivotal role in deciding the party’s nominee for the seat held by retiring Sen. John W. Warner. The conservatives are more aligned with former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who also is considering a bid for Mr. Warner’s seat.
“You see these fights from time to time,” said Craig Shirley, an Alexandria-based conservative strategist. “It is no different than Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, President Reagan and [Gerald] Ford. Moderates say, ‘We have to be more like Democrats,’ and conservatives say, ‘If we want to be more like Democrats we might as well join their party.’ ”
The American Conservative Union, the Club for Growth, the Family Research Council and the National Rifle Association have given Mr. Davis some of the poorest scores among the Republicans representing Virginia on Capitol Hill. Republican National Committee member Morton C. Blackwell endorsed Mr. Gilmore hours after Mr. Warner announced that he would not seek a sixth term.
Mr. Davis is a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of moderates in Congress with centrist values. He has supported some gun-control measures and embryonic-stem-cell research.
He was the last chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee to increase the Republican majority in the House. He supported all of President Bush’s tax cuts and voted for authorizing military force in Iraq.
Delegate Charles W. “Bill” Carrico Sr., Carroll County Republican, predicted that Mr. Davis’ record would present “a hurdle” for voters in the area he represents, which he compared to the Bible Belt.
“Southwest Virginia is very conservative. Even the Democrats in Southwest Virginia are conservative,” Mr. Carrico said. “I think he has to spend some time talking to people and let them know his stances on the issues and not try to sugarcoat anything. People are more likely to accept you if you are honest than if you try to pull the wool over their eyes.”
The party’s State Central Committee is expected to decide as early as Oct. 13 whether to select its nominee through a primary or a convention, which political observers say would favor Mr. Gilmore.
The Republican nominee could face former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is expected this week to announce whether he will run for the Senate or for governor again. The two Warners are not related.
Mr. Davis has made several swings through Southern Virginia to garner conservative support. He was praised for talking about core voter issues: education, the economy and jobs.
“When it comes down to it, whether a person is ‘conservative enough’ doesn’t make a big difference here,” said Adam L. Tolbert, chairman of the Smyth County Republican Party. “Southwest Virginia voters tend to vote on the issues that are important to this region such as economic development and industry.”
Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican, said “health care, the war, terrorism and education … could trump the social issues” such as abortion.
“All campaigns are about local issues and the future, not necessarily the past,” he said. “You can’t not talk about the social issues, but by the same token guys like [former New York mayor and White House hopeful] Rudy Giuliani are doing well out here.”
Delegate Robert Hurt, South Boston Republican, said, “I think the major issue facing Southside Virginia is jobs and economic prosperity. That goes hand-in-hand with education. Those are the things that are pressing here.”
Republicans say Mr. Davis will have the money and a message that appeals to a broad base of voters.
“A Mark Warner versus Tom Davis race would definitely provide for a better chance for the Republicans retaining this Senate seat since the political dynamic of Northern Virginia is changing so much,” Mr. Tolbert said. “With Mark Warner and Davis being from the same area, it could make for an interesting vote split in Northern Virginia.”