Friday, July 18, 2008

>Trailing by double digits in tracking polls and facing a roughly 8-1 fundraising gap, James S. Gilmore III is staring down yet another challenge in his U.S. Senate campaign — sharing the stage in a debate Saturday with his popular opponent, Mark R. Warner.

Observers say a good performance in the campaign’s first face-to-face contest between the former Virginia governors is crucial for Mr. Gilmore, who is facing an uphill battle to replace retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner.

“The stakes are enormously higher for Gilmore, given that he’s running as the underdog in this campaign and he has to do something to change people’s very elevated opinions of Mark Warner,” said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of political science at George Mason University. “This may be a format that works better for him in a campaign.”

A Rasmussen Reports survey last month showed Mr. Warner enjoyed a 27-point lead over Mr. Gilmore. The survey was the sixth consecutive to show the Democrat leading by double digits.

Mr. Warner also holds an enormous fundraising lead, having received about $9 million since launching his campaign last year, compared with Mr. Gilmore’s $1.2 million. Given the Democrat’s perceived popularity and seemingly unlimited resources, observers say Mr. Gilmore has to capitalize on Saturday’s contest.

“The reality is, at least at the moment, the vote of the funders is that [Gilmore’s] is not a serious campaign,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “If he can’t change that fairly soon, it’s going to be a really almost insurmountable task.”

The debate, held at The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association, begins at 11 a.m. and is expected to feature the candidates clashing over taxes and oil, along with trading verbal barbs over each other’s records in office.

“It’s all so predictable,” said Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia´s Center for Politics. “We could write the lines.”

The Warner campaign contends that Mr. Gilmore, who was governor from 1998 to 2002, created a “fiscal mess” that necessitated Mr. Warner’s record $1.38 billion tax increase during his succeeding term. The Democrat left office in 2006 with approval ratings of roughly 70 percent.

But the Gilmore campaign says the Republican left the state with a balanced budget and $1 billion in its rainy-day fund, and that any budget shortfall had more to do with Mr. Warner’s spending than Mr. Gilmore’s.

“It’s going to be dueling gubernatorial records, with Gilmore trying to deflate the image of Mark Warner as having had this flawless term as governor,” Mr. Rozell said. “And I imagine Mark Warner will attack some of the more vulnerable points regarding Gilmore’s term as governor as well.”

The two men also have differed on how to solve the country’s energy crisis, and are likely to debate immigration stances and foreign policy experience as well, Mr. Holsworth said.

Gilmore campaign manager Dick Leggitt said his candidate will aim to continue his outreach to working families struggling with high gas prices and a tough economy during the debate, and he expects to hear Mr. Warner try to “fuzz the issues.”

“The good thing about Jim Gilmore is what he says today is what he says tomorrow, and what he’s been saying all year is the people of Virginia are struggling,” Mr. Leggitt said.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said his candidate is “eager to discuss” issues like the economy, energy and “how to address those challenges.”

“Governor Warner also is eager to offer the contrast with his opponent in leadership style and a bipartisan approach to problem solving,” Mr. Hall said.

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