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Virginia incumbent lends a hand in governor's race

Popular Democrat helps lieutenant fight GOP challenge

LEESBURG, Va. -- In a close Virginia gubernatorial race marked by a bitter fight over the death penalty, the biggest name is not on the ballot -- popular incumbent and potential Democratic presidential contender Mark Warner.

With Warner barred by state law from seeking a second term, Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and former state attorney general Jerry Kilgore, a Republican, are battling to succeed him in a race that polls indicate is too close to call.

But Warner, whose centrist appeal and job approval rating of more than 70 percent in a Republican-leaning Southern state have given him a growing national profile, has been a constant presence on the campaign trail and in television ads on Kaine's behalf.

The two stress their teamwork in wiping out the state's huge budget deficit, improving Virginia's schools, and earning top marks for the state's management.

''The choice in this race is very clear. Tim Kaine has stood with me on every issue that Virginia has confronted, and his opponent has stood against us," Warner told a crowd in a diner for a breakfast rally in the northern Virginia town of Leesburg.

The governor's race in Virginia and another in New Jersey are the biggest contests in the off-year Nov. 8 election, and will be watched closely for evidence of how the mounting political struggles of President Bush and national Republicans are influencing voters.

Kilgore, whose early lead in polls has slipped to a statistical tie, has warned voters that Kaine will raise taxes and is too far to the left on social issues such as gun control, immigration, and, most prominently, the death penalty.

In a state where a solid majority supports the death penalty, Kilgore aired two television ads featuring family members of murdered Virginians. The ads denounced Kaine for opposing the death penalty, and said he could not be trusted to carry out an execution.

''Tim Kaine is too liberal on this issue," Kilgore said in a recent debate.

The ads helped draw a distinction between Kaine and Warner -- Kaine said that as a Catholic, he has a faith-based objection to executions, but is willing to carry out Virginia's state law.

''Just like any other person of faith, I can take an oath and follow it. I'm good to my word. Virginians appreciate somebody who has a faith conviction," said Kaine, who called the ads a sign of desperation by Kilgore's campaign.

He said he thought the harsh tone of the ads backfired on Kilgore, who aired two new positive ads this week.

One featured Kilgore's political mentor, popular US Senator George Allen, who is a former governor and prospective Republican White House candidate in 2008.

Republicans hope that the Virginia race will help them extend their political dominance in the South, where they elected five senators to formerly Democratic seats last November and reclaimed the governor's offices in Mississippi and Kentucky in 2003.

But no one has more riding on the outcome than Warner, a prospective 2008 White House candidate who bases his appeal to national Democrats on his ability to reach moderate and rural voters and help the party become competitive again in the South.

''If Warner can't swing the election to his own lieutenant governor with a popularity rating of 75 percent, then Democrats have the right to ask, 'Can this guy really swing any Southern states or was this a fluke?' " University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said.

Warner, a former chairman of the National Governors Association, has emphasized education and fiscal management while cementing a national reputation as a Democrat who is equally comfortable at NASCAR races or high-tech conferences.

He acknowledged that he will be judged in part on his ability to help deliver Virginia for Kaine, but said he is not concerned by the prospect.

Kilgore, who said Kaine was a mediocre mayor of Richmond, has frequently reminded voters of Kaine's support for tax increases in the 2004 budget agreement that Warner won from the Republican-controlled state legislature. Kilgore opposed the agreement.

But Sabato said Warner's popularity is Kaine's best ''antidote" to further attacks in the final weeks of the race.

''Warner is the reason this race is essentially tied," Sabato said.

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