Sept. 11 haunts Virginia vote

Changes: The usual free-for-all for governor has been subdued, with the two candidates in tomorrow's election cautious and interest sparse.

November 05, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIDDLEBURG, Va. - As surely as the air crisps along with the apple crop and the horsy set wraps up its fall steeplechase circuit, Virginians head to the polls. They relish their politics here in the state that considers itself the cradle of democracy, which is a good thing because Virginia's election cycle produces a big race almost every November.

Tomorrow, voters will elect a governor, as they do every four years because of the office's single-term limit. But while that normally guarantees a spirited free-for-all, this year's contest has been noticeably subdued: A candidate's staff and volunteers can outnumber "real" voters at campaign events; grip-and-grin swings through Main Street businesses have turned up precious few shoppers' hands to shake or babies to cuddle.

"State politics is normally second only to religion in Virginia," said J. Bradford Coker, a political pollster. "But this year, people's attention has been distracted."

Add politics-as-usual to the list of things changed by Sept. 11. As the candidates for governor campaign frantically in the last days before tomorrow's election, they often find sparse crowds and an electorate with other things on its mind.

"The specter of Sept. 11 hangs over all our heads," said Mark R. Warner, the Democratic candidate and, if the polls are correct, the front-runner.

"I think obviously people are preoccupied with safety and security issues, as I am as well," said his Republican opponent, Mark L. Earley.

Both have had to tread lightly in this new climate, trying to pursue their personal ambitions without offending voters pained by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the fallout at home and abroad.

Virginia suffered as greatly as any area of the country outside New York City: The Pentagon is in Arlington, and many victims of the attack lived in Northern Virginia as their co-workers do. Additionally, many of the troops mobilized for the war in Afghanistan are from Norfolk, the Navy city where more than a third of the population works for the military.

Both candidates suspended active campaigning in the first days after the attacks. But when they returned, people weren't particularly interested.

An event last week in this pretty town in the heart of horse country was perhaps typical: A handful of Republican stalwarts - local officeholders and party regulars - waited outside the Community Center for Earley, who was running late. Staff and volunteers waved signs and balloons, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate festivity. At least one man, the mayor of nearby Front Royal, left before Earley arrived, wearing the GOP uniform popularized by Ronald Reagan - a business suit and cowboy boots.

"We're focusing on safety and security issues, which are paramount now, and how important it is to have experienced leadership now," Earley, 47, a former state attorney general, told the small crowd. "There's only one candidate, Democrat or Republican, who has experience in office ... and that's Mark Earley, not Mark Warner."

It's a message that should be playing better in these uncertain times and in this conservative Southern state, which has elected Republicans as governor the past two times and where both U.S. Senators are Republican. The state's departing governor, James S. Gilmore III, is the chairman of the National Republican Committee. But nothing is quite as it should be these days, in daily life or in politics.

Normally, a Republican president in the White House, particularly one enjoying record popularity as George Bush is, would cross the Potomac River to campaign for his party's candidate in Virginia. But not this year.

"The problem Republicans have is the president is popular now, but the reason he's popular is he's seen as a unifying figure who is above party politics," said Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "Before all this happened, he could have come down here without thinking twice and campaigned hard for Mark Earley. But now, doing so would do Bush more harm than do Earley good."

Few will publicly blame Bush for staying home.

"He's a little busy these days," said Charles Turner, a retired oil man who lives nearby in The Plains and attended the Middleburg event for Earley.

But Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of government, said Republicans shouldn't give the president a free pass - and many aren't: "The Republicans are grumbling. They hear he doesn't have time, he's running a war, but then they see him at the World Series. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, LBJ, Nixon, Bush the First - they all campaigned during wartime. But Bush has chosen not to use any of his capital, and Virginia is probably the only place where he could actually swing the election."(The only other governor's race tomorrow is in New Jersey, where the Democrat, Jim McGreevey, is also leading his Republican opponent, Bret Schundler.)

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