Why Virginia Worries the GOP

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Home Stretch: Kilgore addresses a rally in Lynchburg, Va.

Jerry Kilgore, a Republican candidate for Governor whose mountain twang kept him out of his own ads for much of the campaign, was looking starched and chipper Sunday as he shook hands outside the Falls Church, a 273-year-old Episcopal congregation near Washington that has a number of Bush Administration luminaries in its pews. Falls Church is a Democratic oasis, but these were his people. "In Falls Church, of all places, a landslide!" Kilgore said delightedly before heading inside. He is Baptist, but joined fellow parishioners in kneeling for prayers. The service ran long and so he sneaked out the side after receiving Communion and headed to McLean Bible Church, a non-denominational mega-church where he was greeted with applause at the Welcome Center.

Even for Election Eve, Kilgore is unusually nervous. On Tuesday night, he will either be Governor-elect of the Old Dominion, one of the nation's most reliably Republican states, or poster boy for his national party's woes heading into next year's mid-term elections. "We can't even win in Virginia?" Republicans will be asking themselves if the former state attorney general does not pull it out in his neck-and-neck race against the Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Timothy M. Kaine. "The conventional wisdom will be that the Republicans are on the verge of a massive meltdown in 2006," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, whose quotes to national reporters will do much to define that conventional wisdom. "It's easy enough to say these off-year elections are a harbinger," Sabato tells TIME, "but history shows that is only rarely the case." Activists in both parties are crediting Kaine, 47, with an edge in closing momentum over Kilgore, 44. The two are tied in key polls and Democrats usually need to be up considerably to overcome the Republican turnout machine in "the mother of Presidents." Political historians point out, however, that if Kilgore triumphs, it would be the first time since 1973 that the party in the White House had won the Virginia statehouse.

President George W. Bush, who carried Virginia by 9 points in 2004 and 8 in 2000, is dropping into the Commonwealth on Monday night on his way home from South America to headline a turn-out-the-vote rally for Kilgore at a Richmond hangar. Kilgore caused a stir last month when he did not join Bush for a "War on Terror" appearance in Norfolk, a military community that along with Richmond is the biggest swing area in this race. It was described as a sign that Bush's woes were dragging Kilgore down, although Republicans say he and the White House decided together that Bush's presence would make an official event look too political and it would not have been a good use of his time. Now the candidate tells TIME: "We're with the President and glad he's on our team. This'll be great to fire up our base."

The Republican National Committee has switched on its intricate "72-hour program" of door-knocking and phone-calling to supporters who have been identified by well-honed techniques that include both the high-tech and laborious. The party chairman, Ken Mehlman, made appearances all over the state this weekend, including a stop at a phone bank in Fredericksburg that had made more than 40,000 calls in just a couple of days. Mehlman will be out again Monday, as will Mary Matalin. White House Political Director Sara Taylor canvassed the state as if she were a candidate herself, making appearances in Richmond, Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley. On Saturday, Kilgore appeared with Sen. George Allen, the presidential candidate and son of the legendary football coach, who was zinging around both the football and football analogies. When he told Kilgore the state was giving him the ball, the candidate held the pigskin with apparent alarm, not quite finding the laces. Kilgore's throws were wobbly but to the immense relief of his staff, he caught the ball one-handed when it was winged at him.

Kaine had his own state political luminary at his side this weekend—a former Governor, and a Republican former Governor, at that. His father-in-law is A. Linwood Holton, 82, who as Governor from 1970 to 1974 was known for his progressive stances on integration and busing. On Sunday morning, Holton joined what the Kaine campaign called a "family hike" at a state park on the Virginia-Kentucky border, where the overlooks offered spectacular pageants of fall foliage. Kaine, a lawyer and former Richmond Mayor, has tied himself to his running mate from 2001, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat whose approval rating in the state is about 70 to 75 percent. Bush's is in the low- to mid-40s. So Kaine's communications director, Mo Elleithee, can slyly say that the Democrats welcome Bush to Virginia. "Do you want someone who's going to govern like Mark Warner, or someone who's going to govern like George Bush?" Elleithee says. "That sums up what this race is all about. We're not doing anything to protest or counter his appearance. It makes our job much easier." A wish, or an irony? The answer could have an ear-splitting impact on national politics.

Three other marquee contests on Tuesday are:

The New Jersey governor's race: Sen. Jon S. Corzine, the super-wealthy former chairman of the investment bank Goldman Sachs Group, is getting a surprisingly strong challenge from Republican Doug Forrester, a super-wealthy benefits-management executive who has antagonized conservatives with his support of abortion rights. Corzine is ahead in polls and it would be considered an upset if Forrester won in the Democratic stronghold. Kerry beat Bush in the state last year, 53 percent to 46 percent, and then-Vice President Al Gore ran ahead of Bush in 2000 by an even more commanding 56 percent to 40 percent. The race has been enlivened in the final days by questions from reporters about allegations of sexual indiscretions by both men. "Rivals Try to Talk Policy, but Sex Remains Topic A," said a headline in local editions of Saturday's New York Times. Corzine, the father of a 23-year-old son, was embarrassed during a Saturday night debate when he suggested he thought the drinking age was 18 instead of 21.

The New York City Mayor's race: The incumbent Republican, Michael Bloomberg, is running 30 points ahead of Democrat Fernando Ferrer. On Sunday, Bloomberg donned a yarmulke in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Ferrer campaigned with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and used a David and Goliath analogy while addressing a Baptist congregation in Harlem.

The special election in California: The ebbing political strength of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—who is up for reelection next year—will be tested in the results of four ballot initiatives that pit his government-reform agenda against organized labor. He wanted the special election, which will cost the state more than $50 million, but Republicans now think it may have been a mistake. On Saturday, a Schwarzenegger aide blocked perhaps his two most famous critics—liberal actor Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening—from crashing a gubernatorial event at an airport hangar in San Diego.