- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2007

Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III should win votes from like-minded conservatives in a U.S. Senate bid, but recent elections show that winning over independents in Northern Virginia will be a bigger challenge.

“Our old strategy where you basically try to win big in the rest of the state and not lose Northern Virginia by too much is no longer a valid strategy,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican. “To win a statewide race, you have to play in Northern Virginia. Any statewide pollster will tell you that.”

Mr. Gilmore, the son of a butcher who rose to become state attorney general in 1993 and governor in 1997, returned to politics this year with a long-shot bid for president. Now he is interested in the Senate seat held by retiring Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican.

He will likely face Rep. Thomas M. Davis III for the Republican nomination, then former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, in the general election in November 2008. Neither Mr. Gilmore nor Mr. Davis has announced officially whether they will run.

Much has changed since Mr. Gilmore left state politics. Mr. Albo estimates that 90,000 people moved into Northern Virginia each year, including many unfamiliar with the anything the former governor has done. That includes the signature move of his administration — slashing the car tax.

That could force Mr. Gilmore to funnel a lot of time and energy into the region “because he hasn’t spent a lot of time up here in a decade,” said James E. Hyland, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Party.

Tucker Watkins, who recently stepped down as chairman of the 5th Republican Congressional District Committee, agreed.

“Anybody who hasn”t been on the ballot for 10 years now is going to have to reintroduce themselves in Northern Virginia,” he said.

That could be a financial hurdle for Mr. Gilmore, who ended his presidential bid $65,000 in the red.

Mr. Gilmore said that he will have no problem raising the money needed to win a general election and that he plans to garner support in Northern Virginia by concentrating on issues that affect people”s everyday lives such as transportation and illegal aliens.

Despite the assurance, Republicans remain concerned about his ability to attract Northern Virginia”s ever-changing electorate — a voting bloc that party member George Allen, in part because of campaign missteps, lost by 120,000 votes in his re-election bid last year.

Still, winning in Northern Virginia will be especially tough against Mr. Warner, considering that he has financial strength and is from Alexandria.

The scenario has led some Republicans to say either Rep. Eric Cantor or Mr. Davis would be the party”s best candidate to keepJohn W. Warner”s seat.

Former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore and other top Republicans across Virginia recently sent out a letter supporting Mr. Davis, called him a “pragmatic bridge-builder.”

“Tom has won 11 successive elections in some of the most Democratic sections of Northern Virginia, including defeating incumbent Rep. Leslie Byrne in 1994 and winning six successive House races in tough partisan terrain,” they said.

The concern about Mr. Gilmore”s Northern Virginia appeal will likely be a factor in the state central committee”s decision on whether to select their nominee through a primary or a convention.

The committee could vote on the choice as early as Oct. 13.

Mr. Gilmore would likely benefit from the larger number of conservatives voting at a convention, while Mr. Davis, who has more than $1 million for a possible campaign, would do better in a primary.

Gilmore supporters say that his ideology reflects the party”s base and that the election is an opportunity for conservatives, who were never thrilled about Mr. Warner, a five-term incumbent, to recapture the seat.

Jim Gilmore is right in the heart of the Republican Party,” said M. Boyd Marcus Jr., a Republican strategist and a Gilmore supporter. “The Republican Party is the conservative party. And I think that on everything from guns and life issues to taxes and foreign policy, he is where most Republicans are.”

Other Republicans argue that the party”s problems in a general election are a result of the lack of support from independent voters, not from conservatives staying home.

In fact, Mr. Gilmore”s gubernatorial win in 1997 and Mr. Allen”s successful senatorial campaign in 2000 represent the last time that conservatives won statewide elections for a top elected office, they say.

Since then, former state Sen. Mark L. Earley lost in his gubernatorial bid against Mark Warner in 2001, Mr. Kilgore lost to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005, and Mr. Allen lost in 2006 to James H. Webb Jr., a Democrat.

“Mark Earley, Jerry Kilgore and George Allen all are basically three very fine men and very good conservatives, and they basically got wiped out in Northern Virginia,” Mr. Albo said.

A Davis supporter said Republicans also should realize there is “no comparison” between the Northern Virginia in which Mr. Allen lost last year by 120,000 votes and the one that supported Mr. Gilmore”s successful run for governor a decade ago.

“It is like comparing apples and oranges,” the source said.

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