- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2008

BUENA VISTA, Va. | Republican James S. Gilmore III got right to the point, taking less than five minutes at a rally Monday to brand Democrat Mark Warner a debate-dodging tax-raiser who can’t tell the truth.

Then Mr. Warner, the heavy favorite in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner, told the same crowd Mr. Gilmore was a partisan too strident even for his own party.

Get used to full-contact politics.

Labor Day in Virginia - a summer-ending series of political parades, picnics and rallies - is only the start of a stretch run for the presidential and congressional races to be decided in 64 days.

The day’s first event was a parade followed by brief speeches in this Republican-leaning city of about 6,500 nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It set the tone for the next two months.

Mark Warner was headed for two other Labor Day events: a parade in Covington, about 70 miles to the west, then a charter flight across the state to Rep. Robert C. Scott’s annual picnic in Newport News.

Mr. Gilmore departed Buena Vista for the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, where he is a delegate.

Before a heavily pro-Warner crowd of about 300 people, Mr. Gilmore recited his litany of knocks against his opponent. He criticized the Democrat’s opposition to drilling for oil in Alaska, his call to repeal President Bush’s tax cuts and his support for pro-labor legislation.

Mr. Gilmore also noted that Mr. Warner had rejected a League of Women Voters invitation to debate Mr. Gilmore on live, statewide television.

“That’s why Mark Warner refuses to debate,” Mr. Gilmore said. “He does not want the people of Virginia to know his position on the issues.”

Later, when asked in an interview about his campaign’s online ad accusing Warner of lying in a 2001 campaign pledge not to raise taxes as governor, Mr. Gilmore said, “I stand by that ad.”

When it was Mr. Warner’s turn, he gave as good as he got.

“You have one candidate that is all about partisanship, all about attacks, all about tearing things down,” Mr. Warner said. “The last thing Washington needs is somebody who couldn’t even pass a budget when his own party controlled the legislature.”

On balance, the day was kind to Mr. Warner. Along the parade route, people wearing Warner campaign stickers or holding Warner yard signs outnumbered those who displayed Mr. Gilmore’s campaign logo. In a region that votes reliably Republican in presidential races, some avid Mr. Warner backers said they could not abide Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Paul Baker, 62, of Lexington, said he liked Mr. Warner’s record as governor and his background as a businessman. But he decided to split his ticket and support Republican Sen. John McCain for president last week when Mr. McCain made Sarah Palin, the conservative pro-gun, anti-abortion governor of Alaska, his running mate.

Virginia is regarded as a battleground in this year’s presidential election, and Virginians will see their first White House race up close for the first time in decades. Democrats have not carried Virginia in a presidential election since 1964. And it’s been a generation since Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford last waged a fall White House campaign in the state.

“Virginians have forgotten what it’s like to be in a battleground state,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Democrats sense an opportunity in Virginia with an unpopular Republican president making Mr. Obama’s message of change resonant. Virginia’s most popular Democrat, Mr. Warner, is running comfortably ahead of Mr. Gilmore, whom Mr. Bush appointed in 2001 to head the Republican National Committee, where he served until 2002.

“No question [Democrats] have enthusiasm and that they’re fired up, but I think the enthusiasm is starting to wane,” said Delegate Christopher B. Saxman, a state co-chairman for Mr. McCain’s campaign.

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