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Virginia Notebook: Gilmore vs. Warner & Clinton

Tim Craig

To figure out James S. Gilmore III's campaign strategy in next year's U.S. Senate race, one only has to listen to him for a few minutes.

In an interview with reporters at the Virginia Republican Party retreat last weekend, Gilmore stressed that former governor Mark R. Warner, the likely Democratic nominee for Senate, won't be on the ballot by himself.

"My strategy is defeating a Clinton-Warner ticket," said Gilmore, who is assuming that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will be the Democratic nominee for president. "It will be Hillary Clinton together with Mark Warner, and at that point, people's opinion about the ticket will change."

A few minutes later, in a speech to the 500 GOP activists and leaders at the retreat in Crystal City, Gilmore fired up the crowd by saying, "I believe the people of Virginia ..... will not want to send a Democrat to the United States Senate to join a team of Hillary Clinton" and other Democratic leaders.

With polls showing Warner with a sizable early lead over Gilmore, the expected Republican nominee is doing all he can to bring the race within his grasp.

The question for Gilmore, who was governor from 1998 to 2002, becomes: Can Clinton alone improve his chances of getting elected?

Or is Gilmore gearing up to run a campaign better suited for 1998 than 2008?

There is no doubt that some Virginia Democrats fear Clinton could be a drag on the state party if she is the nominee next year. But it's far from a sure thing that Clinton would cost Warner votes.

A Washington Post poll in October found a higher percentage of Virginians said they definitely would not vote for GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson than said they would definitely not vote for Clinton.

The poll also found Democrats had an advantage of 11 percentage points when residents were asked which party they want to control the control the White House, suggesting a Democrat could win Virginia's 13 electoral votes for the first time since 1964.

Virginians' attitudes toward the Clintons appear to have improved dramatically since 2001, when Warner was elected governor. In that race, Warner kept his distance from former president Bill Clinton and made sure voters knew where they differed on policies.

By 2006, Virginia Democrats were feeling more confident about their relationship with the Clintons. Last year, Hillary Clinton traveled to Northern Virginia to hold a fundraiser for Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who appeared with the former first lady at a joint news conference.

On the eve of the 2006 election, Webb brought Bill Clinton to Alexandria for a rally.
The rally, which was broadcast across the state, attracted several thousand people, ranking it as one of the biggest political rallies in modern Virginia history for a statewide candidate.

Gilmore's strategy of linking Warner to Clinton could be risky in Northern Virginia, a Democratic-leaning area where voters are prone to split tickets.

Many moderate Republicans and independents in Northern Virginia can separate their feelings about Warner, who campaigns as a centrist problem solver, from whatever hostility they might hold for Clinton.

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) also suggested in October that disenchantment with Hillary Clinton was helping to save her bid for reelection. Devolites Davis lost to Democrat J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen by 10 percentage points.

Gilmore, who trailed Warner by 30 percentage points in The Washington Post poll, needs to find some way to kick-start his campaign. Because Warner is popular in many Republican-leaning areas of southern and western Virginia, Gilmore needs to figure out a way to unify the Republican base if he is going to stand a chance in November.

By linking Warner to Clinton, Gilmore is making sure voters know his opponent is a Democrat and he is a Republican.
If Gilmore can turn the Senate contest into a matchup between Republican vs. Democrat, he stands a chance of making the race close, at the very least.

A Republican nominee for a statewide office has not been crushed by a Democrat at the polls since 1989, when former attorney general Mary Sue Terry (D) beat Republican Buster O'Brien by 300,000 votes.

Because it's a presidential year with no incumbent president on the ballot, Warner will be facing a far broader electorate than in his past races. In 2001, when Warner was elected, 46 percent of registered voters showed up to vote.

Based on the turnout in the 2004 presidential race, 71 percent, some say as many as three quarters of the electorate could show up to vote next year.

The challenge for Warner becomes how many of these voters are likely to be persuaded by Gilmore's efforts to tie him to Clinton.

Some Republicans argue the electoral outlook in Virginia will look far more appealing for the GOP by next summer, when President Bush is no longer the public face of the party.

If Clinton fares no better than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) performed in Virginia in the 2004 presidential election, Warner will have to persuade at least 260,000 votes to split their tickets.

Warner should also be concerned that only once since 1964 has Virginia supported a Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in the same year voters were pulling the lever for the Republican presidential nominee.

But the pressure is still on Gilmore to prove his strategy will work.

It will probably take more than Clinton to succeed, but she is a tool few Republicans running in a Southern state would pass over.

And what will Gilmore do if Clinton doesn't win the nomination?

By Tim Craig  |  December 5, 2007; 7:26 PM ET
Categories:  Election 2008/Congress , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , James Gilmore III , James Webb , Mark Warner , Polls , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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"Warner should also be concerned that only once since 1964 has Virginia supported a Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in the same year voters were pulling the lever for the Republican presidential nominee."

Robb was elected in 1988 when 41 carried the state.

Posted by: Not TC | December 5, 2007 10:49 PM | Report abuse

it says only once. Robb is the only one.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Well that's a stupid assumption for Gilmore to make (that Clinton WILL be the nominee!).

It's looking more and more like an Obama-Edwards and Warner ticket to me!

Posted by: Doug in Mount Vernon | December 6, 2007 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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