RICHMOND -- If this were any other state, Governor Mark Warner probably would be riding his high job-approval ratings to a lopsided reelection this fall.
But Virginia is the only state that automatically sends its governors packing after one term. And so this November, as they do every four years, Virginia voters will reinvent their state government and provide the rest of the nation an early glimpse at the current political mind-set.
''The voting trends all point Republican. But Mark Warner has shown there's a path to Democratic victory," said politics professor Mark Rozell, director of the Center for Public Policy at George Mason University. ''People are talking about this as a genuine, competitive, two-party race that could go either way."
The candidates are two party stalwarts who started their campaigns for governor as Warner's term started and a maverick whose last-minute entry into the contest has tweaked the conventional political wisdom.
The Democrat is Lieutenant Governor Timothy Kaine, the former Richmond mayor who says he is the heir to Warner's pro- business, centrist policy agenda. Kaine wants the Nov. 8 election to unofficially be the referendum on Warner that the constitution officially prohibits.
The Republican is former attorney general Jerry Kilgore, a lawyer from southwest Virginia who was part of the movement that brought the GOP back-to-back gubernatorial victories in the 1990s, as well as control of the legislature. A Kilgore win would reestablish the party's message of opposing tax increases and make Warner's victory in 2001 seem like a political aberration.
They are being shadowed by independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester with a sharp tongue and a shoestring campaign.
There are egos at stake besides those of the candidates. Warner and US Senator George Allen, a Republican who strongly supports Kilgore's campaign, are considered possible presidential candidates in 2008. Their supporters and detractors will read much into the results.
And political leaders are eyeing Virginia -- the only other governor's race this year is in New Jersey -- as a laboratory for issues that could shape the congressional midterm elections in 2006.
Republicans will be watching, nervously, for signs that rising gas prices, frustration with the Iraq war, and President Bush's declining popularity will translate into trouble in future elections.
''Even if it doesn't result in a sea of voters going to the polls to take their anger out on the White House, what it may do is keep Republicans at home," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks state campaigns for the Cook Political Report. ''That's a problem for them."
And Democrats, demoralized by their showing in the South in the 2004 presidential election, are searching for signs that Virginia may be changing in ways that could favor certain Democrats. Losing one of the few governor's seats Democrats still hold in the region could dash those hopes.
Although Warner is barred from reelection, he is not missing from the campaign.
Kaine intends to plaster Warner's face across television screens and on every piece of campaign literature. Voters will hear Warner on the radio and on automated phone calls. The two will be together today for the traditional Labor Day swing that starts the fall campaign.
''I want to do all I can to help Tim," Warner said in an interview last week. ''I think he will continue the bipartisan, fiscally sound approach we've taken."
A millionaire businessman with no record as an elected official to defend, Warner won four years ago by appealing to the center. He courted the National Rifle Association, spent years laying the groundwork for his campaign in rural Virginia, and promoted such traditionally conservative issues as the death penalty.
In office, he slashed spending and signed bills protecting gun rights and restricting abortion. Last year, he joined moderate Republican legislators to push through a $1.5 billion tax increase to balance the state's shaky finances and pay for schools, healthcare, and public safety.
Kaine's strategy is simple: Be like Mark.
In stump speeches and town hall meetings, Kaine brags about what he calls ''the Warner-Kaine administration."
Kaine reminds audiences that he supported Warner's tax reform efforts while Kilgore opposed them. His sentences often begin, ''Mark and I . . ."
Kaine was the mayor of Richmond for four years when Virginia's capital was struggling with violent crime, poor schools, and crumbling infrastructure. Warner can provide little cover for Kaine when it comes to Kilgore's criticism of the city's problems.
And Kaine's positions on social issues are different, too.
As a lawyer, he defended death-row inmates. On guns, he received an ''F" from the NRA -- a far cry from Warner, who persuaded gun-rights groups to stay neutral in the governor's race four years ago. Kaine said he is morally opposed to the death penalty and abortion but is willing to enforce the state's existing laws.
He said that his positions on abortion and capital punishment are rooted in his Catholic faith but that the oath of office he would take as governor also would be sacred.
''I believe deeply in the morality of laws that we have," Kaine said in an interview last month.
Unfortunately for Kaine, Virginia has been trending Kilgore's way for two decades. The state has voted for a Republican president in every election since 1968.
The Legislature, which once held just a handful of Republicans, now is solidly controlled by the GOP. And last year, Bush won the state by painting Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, as unacceptable to those who hold Virginia values.
Like Bush, Kilgore is aggressively seeking to expand the number of core voters in the party. Campaign aides said their chief target is what they call ''lazy Republicans," who vote in presidential elections but not in the governor's race. To do that, Kilgore is proposing a cap on home assessment increases and is promising to hold a referendum before raising taxes. He also is pushing a merit pay plan for teachers and a tax credit for school supplies.
Kilgore has also said the state faces an illegal immigration crisis and stepped into a contentious, long-running Northern Virginia battle to say he opposes using public money to build a center in Herndon for day laborers, some of whom are in the country illegally. Strategists in both parties wonder about the potency of the issue.
Like the president, Kilgore hopes to brand his opponent as an out-of-touch liberal.
In particular, Republicans say they need to separate Kaine from Warner in the minds of voters with a mosaic of television ads about the death penalty, guns, abortion, and taxes.
''It's a liberal instinct that you see if you look at his entire career," Kilgore said in an interview while campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley. ''If I'm faced with a budget issue; my instinct is not going to be to raise taxes."
Meanwhile, Potts is the wild card in Virginia's governor's race.
An irascible, unpredictable politician who decided in February to run as an independent, Potts has promoted adoption rights for gays, has said he would raise gas taxes for new roads, and supports abortion rights.
Such positions might appeal to Democratic voters. But Potts, a lifelong Republican and 13-year Senate veteran, is well known in his district for his past positions: fighting against abortion and promising lower taxes.
Kaine has embraced the Potts candidacy and has agreed to debate him several times. Kilgore has treated Potts like a pariah, declining to debate and declaring his candidacy irrelevant. In return, Potts has excoriated Kilgore, calling him ''a coward" and denouncing his proposals as fiscally irresponsible.
Potts has raised little money, barely enough for a round of television ads in Northern Virginia. In most polls, Potts barely registers.
Still, neither campaign knows quite what to make of him, and it's unclear whether anyone in Virginia -- which allows unlimited campaign contributions -- might step forward with enough last-minute cash to make his voice heard.