Virginia Governor's Race Pivots on Guns, Executions

Virginia will choose a new governor this year, but voters in the Old Dominion might well wonder whether they are being asked to pick the next sheriff of Tombstone.

Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine are brawling for bragging rights in the rural western half of the state. The battle revolves around two issues that long have been popular in Virginia politics: gun rights and the death penalty.

Kilgore, a former state attorney general who grew up in the mountainous southwest corner of the state, is trying to portray Kaine as a social liberal by tying him to gun-control groups. Kilgore also questions whether the Democrat's moral opposition to capital punishment would cause him to impose a moratorium on executions if he is elected.

Kaine, the lieutenant governor, has reacted swiftly to every volley from the Kilgore campaign with reassurances to rural voters that he is their friend. The Democrat promises not to support any new gun-control laws in Virginia. He also says he will comply with death sentences.

Those issues may not carry much clout in New Jersey, the only other state with a gubernatorial election this year. In Virginia, however, they remain important for many people living beyond the suburban sprawl surrounding Washington, D.C., said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who advises state and national Democrats on how to win rural votes.

"It's the remnants of an agrarian economy," said Saunders, a Virginia native. "It's pure culture, and if someone fools with your gun, that goes right to the soul of Bubba."

Four years ago, Saunders helped the incumbent governor, Democrat Mark R. Warner, win a slim majority among rural voters, a key element in the candidate's strategy to capture the governor's mansion. Warner employed a bluegrass band to perform a campaign theme song, sponsored a NASCAR dragster and organized Sportsmen for Warner. More importantly, he stymied Republican efforts to peg him as a liberal by touting his support for the death penalty and promising not to sign any new gun-control measures.

Republicans had little ammunition to use against Warner, a telecommunications executive who had not previously held public office. In contrast, Kaine has a lengthy record as an attorney, mayor of Richmond and the state's lieutenant governor.

Kaine's vulnerabilities were not lost on Warner, who distanced himself from his fellow Democrat the day after Kaine won the lieutenant governor nomination. At a press conference for the 2001 Democratic ticket-mates, Warner told reporters that he disagreed with Kaine's views on guns and capital punishment. Both men were elected that fall in spite of their sour campaign kickoff.

This year, Kaine's past statements on those issues have been fodder for a series of radio and television advertisements funded by Republican and conservative advocacy groups.

The ads highlight Kaine's use of public funds while mayor of Richmond to send city residents on a bus trip to the Million Mom March, a 2000 anti-gun rally in Washington, D.C. Kaine later reimbursed the city for the expense after he was criticized for his actions. The ads also note that Kaine spoke in favor of a moratorium on executions in 2001 as a candidate for lieutenant governor.

Kilgore said the ads raise legitimate issues that many Virginia voters care about.

"There are major philosophical differences between Lt. Gov. Kaine and me," Kilgore said. "Virginia philosophically agrees with supporting gun rights for law-abiding citizens, and Virginia philosophically agrees with the death penalty. The major parties have never nominated a statewide candidate who has been an opponent of both."

Kaine has responded quickly with television spots assuring viewers that he is not a threat to gun rights or capital punishment. In his ads, Kaine says he would uphold death penalty laws as governor, and he asserts his support of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.

Kaine said the bus trip to the anti-gun rally was organized by constituents who had lost family members to gun violence. Richmond had the second highest homicide rate in the country when Kaine first joined the city council in 1994. Tough penalties on illegal guns had helped the city drop to eighth place by 2000, but Kaine said the violence still was devastating the city.

"You go to too many crime scenes and funerals and victim-support groups in church basements," Kaine said. "I didn't go to the Million Mom March because I was trying to fight crime in Richmond and do a bunch of stuff, but it was important to help these families."

On the death penalty, Kaine said his opposition to capital punishment is based on his religious beliefs as a Catholic. However, he said he would not let his personal convictions interfere with his duty to carry out state laws that prescribe execution for those who commit heinous crimes.

"When we run for public office and we put our hand on a Bible and we say we're going to uphold the law, I view that as like my marriage oath," he said. "That's an oath I'm going to honor."

A state senator who is waging an independent bid for governor said both major-party candidates are spending too much time on frivolous ideological issues.

"They haven't addressed the serious challenges we face, most particularly transportation," said H. Russell Potts Jr., who lives in the rural Shenandoah Valley . "I think it's in many instances demeaning to many people in the Valley because we have a very knowledgeable locale with a great tradition of political knowledge and involvement."

The exchanges over guns and executions are vexing to business leaders in Northern Virginia , home to the state's worst traffic congestion.

"I don't think the social issues have anything to do with Virginia's long-term future or even its short-term future," said John T. Hazel Jr., a Fairfax County developer. "The far right and far left manage to haul out these social issues that don't amount to a hill of beans. They are dealing in political platitudes and cliches."

William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said he remains hopeful that transportation and education needs will get more attention from all three candidates as the Nov. 8 election draws closer.

"To win elections in Virginia you have to speak to those quality-of-life issues," he said.

Christina Nuckols is a Statehouse reporter in the Richmond bureau of The Virginian-Pilot.

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