- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2007

Virginia Republicans are split on whether to select their nominee to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner with a convention or a primary, two unique formats with different strategies and voters.

“There are a lot of pros and a lot of cons to both sides,” said Becky Stoeckel, chairman of the 11th Republican Congressional District Committee. “Unfortunately, the nomination process is not always a pleasant thing. It comes down to intraparty warfare. And do we want to do it behind closed doors or open it up? …I would not bet a dime on which way it will go.”

The party’s State Central Committee is expected to vote as early as Oct. 13 or as late as Nov. 14 on the nomination process.

Party members expect a two-man race between Rep. Thomas M. Davis III and former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who recently ended his long-shot presidential bid. However, neither has officially announced his candidacy.

Political observers say Mr. Gilmore would benefit significantly from a convention because his ideology is closer to the party’s conservative base and that a primary would help Mr. Davis, who has won races in voter-rich Northern Virginia and likely has more money to get out his message statewide.

“A convention is tailor-made for the candidate who has the support of the evangelical Christian,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “If it is one moderate versus one conservative in a Republican primary election, the Republican conservative wins.”

He also said the “best circumstance” for Mr. Davis is several conservative candidates in the race dividing those who would vote for a conservative candidate.

Since Mr. Warner’s announcement last week that he would not seek a sixth term next year, Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Davis have been calling members of the state central committee and jockeying for position.

The Republican winner could face former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat with statewide appeal. He is expected to announce his intentions next week and would likely be an early favorite.

Under a convention system, local Republican committees across Virginia would elect delegates to attend the convention, where they would cast votes for a nominee.

Trixie Averill, a member of the 6th Republican Congressional District Committee, said she is a “convention girl” because the process does not cost taxpayers and bars Democrats from voting. She also said it allows candidates to spend less money and gets party activists “fired up” heading into the general election.

“My gut feeling tells me the will of ‘state central’ will be for a convention,” said Miss Averill, who in 2000 was appointed by Mr. Gilmore to the board of directors of the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority. “You’ve got really committed people who want to go and really give up a weekend for nothing but politics and wanting to nominate a person.”

Gilmore spokesman Dan Kreske said conventional wisdom suggests conservatives “prefer a convention to show unity and save money.”

But Mr. Gilmore is also open to a primary contest, he said.

“We are hearing that the majority of state central members of the GOP are expected to vote for a convention,” Mr. Kreske said.

James Rich, chairman of the 10th Republican Congressional District Committee, said the candidates are better off going through a rigorous primary because it forces them to broaden their appeal beyond party insiders and hone a winning message.

“I tend to favor a primary because I think it will get our name ID out,” said Mr. Rich, a Davis supporter. “I also think winners from a primary can show they can more aptly win a November race, and it encourages people to become invested in our nominee.”

David Avella, chairman of the 8th Republican Congressional District Committee and Davis supporter, agreed.

“A primary opens it up to Republicans all across the commonwealth,” he said. “It requires the candidate and eventual nominee to put together the type of campaign they need for the general election. It really is like spring training.”

Other Republicans say the convention creates a hostile intraparty environment that would allow Democrats to say the candidate was chosen by “wackos at a Republican convention.” They also said that same “Republicans-are-out-of-touch” narrative helped Democrat James H. Webb Jr. win a Virginia Senate seat and Democrats pickup General Assembly seats in recent elections.

Whoever wins the nomination, the biggest Republican ally in a general election could be a Democrat: New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If Mrs. Clinton becomes the 2008 Democratic nominee for president, Republicans say it would motivate their base to turn out in greater numbers on election day to defeat her.

“No way in heck Mark Warner wants to run with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket,” said state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican.

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