- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Barring a setback of major proportions, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner appears headed for a sweeping victory over Republican rival James S. Gilmore III, also a former governor, in next month’s U.S. Senate election.

“Gilmore can’t win for trying,” said Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s not his year, and the votes will clearly show that.”

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, has traveled a clearly paved path toward the Nov. 4 contest, outpacing Mr. Gilmore in fundraising by millions of dollars and continually leading his competitor by double digits in the polls.

A survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. released last week showed 57 percent of voters favored Mr. Warner, compared with 31 percent who supported Mr. Gilmore.

It is not clear how the runaway race will affect voter turnout for other races, including the presidential contest between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama - who is trying to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Mr. Sabato said the impact of the Warner-Gilmore race on the presidential contest and others in the state depends on how much Mr. Warner’s campaign has focused on getting voters to the polls Nov. 4, and if it is targeting constituents who will vote solely for Democrats on the ballot.

Virginia had registered more than 306,000 new voters this year, according to statistics released last week by the State Board of Elections. The deadline to register in the state was Monday.

Mr. Warner also has focused on a message of bringing bipartisanship to Capitol Hill. But it’s more likely that voters marking their ballots for Mr. Obama will subsequently vote for Mr. Warner, and not the other way around, Mr. Sabato said.

“You vote for president first, then you vote for Senate and for House,” he said. “The very concept of reverse coattails is nonsensical.”

The Gilmore campaign has criticized Mr. Warner of trying to protect his lead by canceling one debate and not agreeing to others. Such a strategy would appear worthwhile, considering Mr. Warner emerged largely unscathed from the three head-to-head debates the candidates have staged.

The two former governors sparred over their respective records in office during their July debate, with Mr. Gilmore hitting Mr. Warner for pushing through a record $1.4 billion tax increase during his term.

Mr. Warner in turn said his tax package was needed to close a $6 billion state budget shortfall that Mr. Gilmore helped create during his term. The contest was largely a draw.

During the second debate held in McLean last month, both candidates called for more oversight on Wall Street and delved into foreign policy. But the Republican again failed to score a knockout blow.

A third debate, held Friday in Roanoke, offered Mr. Gilmore another chance.

He was emphatic that he would not support the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street approved by congressional lawmakers earlier that day, whileMr. Warner said he would.

But Mr. Sabato noted that Mr. Gilmore’s stance on the bailout drew skepticism from Sen. John W. Warner, the fellow Republican who voted for the bailout and whom the candidates are vying to replace upon his retirement.

“If this were a competitive race, Gilmore might have been able to make something out of the bailout,” he said. “But whatever advantage he got from it was eliminated by John Warner suggesting he might not vote for him on that basis.”

Mark Warner’s spokesman, Kevin Hall, said it’s traditional for candidates to hold three debates in Virginia statewide elections, and denied Mr. Warner has been trying to avoid pre-election pitfalls.

Mr. Warner will be focused on “an awful lot of retail politics” during the last month of the campaign, talking to constituents and continuing to work for their votes, he said.

“Certainly, Governor Warner is energized by the support he’s receiving and the various polls,” Mr. Hall said. “But this is a sprint, and he is working hard every day for the privilege of going to the Senate.”

Mr. Gilmore is not giving up, either.

Spokeswoman Ana Gamonal said he will continue to travel and campaign, and that the crisis on Wall Street has provided an opportunity for him to earn more votes with his stance against the bailout.

She said if the stock market continues to founder, “taxpayers may take their anger and their action to the polls.”

“The bailout has presented an opportunity to draw a clear contrast between Mark Warner and Governor Gilmore,” Mrs. Gamonal said.

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