Virginia governor's race: education, taxes and abortion


MANASSAS, Va. -- Democratic Lt. Gov. Don Beyer stood before children the other morning at the Weems Elementary School and fielded questions about why he, rather than Republican Attorney General Jim Gilmore, should be elected the next governor of Virginia on Nov. 4.

The audience was made to order for Mr. Beyer, seeking to make education the centerpiece of his campaign. He talked about plans to put more computers in classrooms, provide more college scholarships and use expected state surpluses to upgrade the schools.

Particularly here in northern Virginia, education is of critical concern to voters, and especially among women, whose votes are expected to determine the election.

As elsewhere in politics these days, polls indicate the Democrat enjoys a gender gap of as much as 12 percent, and if Mr. Beyer is to win, this advantage among women voters must be realized at the ballot box.

Mr. Gilmore, contesting for the same vote on the same issue of education, is proposing adding 4,000 teachers to the public school system through aid to localities. But his biggest pitch is to all Virginians who suffer under a despised city and county personal property tax -- for most of them, a levy on their cars, trucks and minivans.

The Republican candidate, in saying he will eliminate this "car tax," strikes a most responsive chord, especially in northern Virginia, where residents are all too aware that their neighbors in the District of Columbia and Maryland have no such distasteful burden imposed on them.

But Mr. Beyer says that Mr. Gilmore's plan to get rid of the "car tax" is a pipe dream, because the reality is that any legislative proposal to eliminate it "will be dead on arrival in the General Assembly," with local officials lobbying aggressively against it, fearful of the loss of revenue they would suffer.

Both candidates probably would be content to have the election decided on their relative positions on education and the car tax. But as in the past in Virginia, another old issue -- abortion -- has crowded in to muddy the picture.

This is so despite the fact that the usual face-off between a pro-choice Democrat and an anti-abortion Republican doesn't present itself so clearly here. Mr. Beyer, to be sure, is pro-choice, but Mr. Gilmore has taken an unusual position that backers like Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, call "mixed choice." He says he does not oppose abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy but would bar it thereafter.

Middle line

Ms. Stone says candidly that Mr. Gilmore hopes to walk a middle line between abortion rights proponents and the Christian Coalition that would bar abortion under all circumstances, and thus avoid the fate that befell the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1989, Marshall Coleman. Mr. Coleman, in a state where polls indicated about 70 percent of voters accepted abortion, was widely perceived as anti-abortion despite efforts of his own to cloud his position.

But an unexpected question in a Gilmore interview has elevated abortion once again as a key issue. Mr. Gilmore, asked what he thought of "spousal notification" -- a wife having to tell her husband she was planning to have an abortion -- said he believed it "would require serious consideration."

Mr. Beyer immediately jumped on him, saying such consideration was "an insult to the women of Virginia." Mr. Gilmore quickly backtracked, noting that the Supreme Court in 1992 had declared spousal notification unconstitutional and therefore he would not back legislation in Virginia to impose it.

In a subsequent debate, Mr. Gilmore backed further away, saying he wouldn't support such notification even if the Supreme Court hadn't ruled against it. But Mr. Beyer is not letting him up, suggesting after the debate that his opponent was flip-flopping -- a charge reminiscent of the one that helped scuttle Republican Coleman against Democrat Doug Wilder in 1989.

Mr. Beyer has been working diligently to paint Mr. Gilmore as an extremist, pointing to a $50,000 contribution to his campaign from television evangelist Pat Robertson and Mr. Gilmore's support of the Senate candidacy of the Iran-contra figure, Oliver North.

The result has been an extremely negative campaign that has moved far beyond a gentlemanly debate over the merits of the candidates' education and tax proposals. In this climate, the inflammatory abortion issue could well be decisive once again.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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