- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Virginian politicians used St. Patrick’s Day yesterday to build momentum for election campaigns and reach out to voters with offers of free cab rides, Irish fare and even a Guinness or two.

It was the latest reminder that candidates have been preparing for tough campaigns this year and next that will influence state and national politics.

In Arlington, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, served corned beef and cabbage for hundreds at his 14th annual St. Patrick’s Day Fete. He also offered Guinness and Harp beers.

In Alexandria, House Democratic Caucus leader Delegate Brian J. Moran helped begin SoberRide Free Cabs — a program that provided St. Patrick’s Day partiers a free and safe ride home.

In Winchester, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, discussed the Supreme Court challenge of the District’s gun laws and said with a last name like McDonnell, green flows through his veins.

With names like Connolly, Moran and McDonnell, “it’s like holding a campaign in Dublin,” McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin joked.

Mr. Connolly is running for the 11th Congressional District seat held by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Republican who announced in January he would not seek re-election. The other front-runner is Leslie Byrne, a former congresswoman and state lawmaker who has strong support from Virginia’s liberal bloggers.

Mr. Moran is vying for the Democratic nomination for governor against state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds next year. Mr. Deeds spoke Saturday to Augusta County Democrats.

Mr. McDonnell is competing for the Republican nomination for governor. He likely will face Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who spoke last night at a Republican meeting in Albemarle County.

Some say the races have been overshadowed by presidential politics and the General Assembly, but will gain more attention, in part, now that the legislature has adjourned for the year.

“I think the Democratic primary at the presidential level is sucking all the oxygen out of the room,” Mr. Connolly told The Washington Times. “So we are sort of operating under the radar. I don’t even think most people know there is a primary June 10.”

Asked a similar question, Mrs. Byrne told The Times, “for the most part the people who vote in Democratic primaries are paying attention…. This is one of the top races in the country.”

Doug Denneny, a retired U.S. Navy officer, also is running for the Democratic nomination in the 11th District. The winner likely will face businessman Keith Fimian, a Republican, in the November general election.

The race grabbed attention this month after Sen. Jim Webb endorsed Mrs. Byrne, saying she “shares my values about economic fairness and the need to reorder our national-security policies — both in Iraq and throughout the world.”

She endorsed Mr. Webb in the party’s 2006 primary, helping him gain some footing among liberal party insiders concerned about his roots in the Republican Party as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan.

Mr. Connolly has support from elected officials in Northern Virginia, including Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax.

Political insiders are anticipating a tough Senate race between former Gov. James S. Gilmore III and state Delegate Robert G. Marshall.

The two Republicans are vying to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner in what is shaping up as a fight over who is the staunchest pro-life candidate. The nominee will be selected at a party convention in May.

Mr. Gilmore has endorsements from top Republicans, despite repeated warnings from Mr. Marshall that he has alienated pro-life voters by saying the government should not intrude on a woman’s choice during the first eight weeks of pregnancy.

“We have the support of a large number of pro-life leaders in the state of Virginia and, really, that is the only thing Bob Marshall has run on in any serious way,” Mr. Gilmore said.

The winner faces an uphill battle against Democrat Mark Warner, the popular former governor who raised more than $2.7 million from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.

“We imagine the campaigns will ramp up later this summer, after Republicans decide whether Mr. Gilmore or Mr. Marshall will be their candidate,” said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall. “In the meantime, we’re staying busy traveling across Virginia, talking about Governor Warner’s proven record of bringing common-sense efficiency and reform to state government, creating jobs and opportunity, and leading record investments in public education, public health and public safety.”

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