- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

RICHMOND - The GOP’s fabled “big tent” could end up a bit threadbare here at the Virginia Republican Convention, which began yesterday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

The two key races to be decided today have become increasingly hard fought. Conservative Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County claims he has gained on former Gov. James S. Gilmore III in recent days in the primary contest for U.S. Senate. Either would face a battle this fall against the Democratic nominee, popular former Gov. Mark R. Warner, as the state’s traditionally conservative electorate trends more toward the center.

The race for state party chairman is also unusually contentious.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at an evening fundraiser, didn’t allude to the bitter contests but highlighted the need to support the nominees who are chosen today.

“President Bush and I look forward to helping our candidates up and down the ticket throughout this very important election, and the stakes are high,” Mr. Cheney told the fundraisers. “Whether the issue is the economy, or energy, or the federal courts or national security, the right answers are coming not from the Democrats, but from the Republicans.”

In remarks on national issues, Mr. Cheney urged his Virginia audience to remind voters hit by skyrocketing fuel prices of the Democrats’ continued opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere.

“We have to produce more oil and gas inside the United States,” Mr. Cheney said. But “a lot of our Democratic friends, year after year, have tried to stand in the way of increased energy production.”

Mr. Cheney also urged the crowd of about 500 to resist Democratic calls to pull out of Iraq, noting that “the surge of operations that began a year ago is succeeding. The only way to lose this fight is to quit.”

Action in the second ring under the big top could be even more harrowing as moderates and conservatives again square off. Republicans must choose a state party chairman who can patch up the differences and help maintain the state’s streak of voting for a Republican president in every election since 1968.

“Regardless of who wins, it is critical to the future of our party that we … do anything in our power to make sure this red state stays red and this country stays on the right track,” Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said during the opening session. Mr. Bolling was chosen to preside over the two-day convention over some protests.

Mr. Gilmore, once expected to easily win the Senate nomination - spent yesterday greeting delegates around the convention center. He said he is “not taking anyone for granted.”

Mr. Gilmore has previously called Mr. Warner his opponent for the Senate seat, seemingly looking past this weekend’s contest with Mr. Marshall.

A narrow victory over Mr. Marshall could dim Mr. Gilmore’s prospects against Mr. Warner - a multimillionaire former governor and formidable politician - in the general election to replace retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner, who is no relation to Mark Warner.

But Mr. Gilmore downplayed such concerns.

“I don’t know what my [victory] margin will be here but it’s really irrelevant to a general election campaign,” he said. “What I do want to do is try to unify the party this weekend.”

Mr. Marshall, however, said yesterday afternoon he is confident he is gaining votes.

After explaining to a delegate where he differs with Mr. Gilmore on issues like abortion and transportation spending, Mr. Marshall said the Gilmore campaign sent out a mailing accusing the delegate of being dishonest through his votes in the General Assembly - a move Mr. Marshall said shows Mr. Gilmore is “feeling the heat.”

“If you look at Gilmore’s negative behavior, he must think I have a good chance,” Mr. Marshall said. “You only do that, one, if you have no ethics, and two, if you’re losing.”

In the race for party chairman, the campaign of Delegate Jeffrey Frederick - a 32-year-old who is challenging the moderate current chairman John H. Hager, 71, for the seat - accused the state party of not placing his campaign material in packets given to convention attendees.

“I think the party can definitely be unified if they play by the rules,” Mr. Frederick said yesterday as he offered stickers to delegates entering the convention’s main hall. “If there’s any doubt, the party’s going to be in trouble trying to come together.”

Mr. Hager responded that only convention sponsors were allowed to place materials in the bags and that Mr. Frederick’s claims were not true.

“It’s a total lie, what he said,” Mr. Hager said. “The facts are pretty simple.”

The party chairman’s race is viewed by some as the new-versus-old guard of the party and is crucial as Republicans look to regain their footing after losing the last two gubernatorial races and a U.S. Senate seat.

About 5,000 delegates are expected to attend the convention, which will culminate in part today with the selection of the nominees and a keynote address by former Sen. George Allen.

Phil and Vanessa Justice, delegates from Hopewell who said they supported Mr. Marshall and Mr. Frederick, said even if their candidate doesn’t win today, they’ll support the party’s choices.

“Some people have the idea if I don’t get my way I’m going to the other side,” Mr. Justice, 59, said. “That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

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