The Democrat in Virginia's race for governor speaks with the bland man-from-nowhere accent of a game show host. The Republican front-runner? Think Gomer Pyle in wingtips. In this off-off-season election, how the candidates talk is becoming almost as much of an issue as what they have to say.

Quick with a quip, the smooth-talking Democrat, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (search), is trying to goad his opponent into debates — the more and the sooner, the better.

But the Republican, former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (search), says Kaine is making fun of his coal-country twang and trying to make him look like a rube, a complaint that could get rural Virginians really fired up.

"They're like two kids in a sandbox," said Russ Potts (search), a Republican state senator running as an independent in the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner, who is restricted to a single term.

Whether the accent slur is real (as Kilgore contends) or contrived (as Kaine insists), the culture clash has consumed pundits, bloggers and the two campaigns.

Kaine grew up in Kansas City, Mo., attended Harvard Law School and has lived in Virginia since 1984, the year he married the daughter of a former Virginia governor.

Kilgore grew up in southwestern Virginia's Gate City, a few hills and hollers from the Tennessee state line. He has a prim-sounding Appalachian twang in which "I" sounds like "ah," "have" can come out "hay-uv," "you" becomes "yeeew," and "think" can be confused for "thank."

Last month, Kilgore's campaign aired a radio ad in which a mellow-voiced announcer with no discernible accent tagged Kaine with the deadliest of political labels in conservative Virginia: "liberal activist," "worked with the ACLU," "opposed the death penalty" and "supported gay adoptions."

In a rebuttal ad, Kaine spoke for himself. He accused Kilgore of "making things up about me and letting slick radio announcers to do his dirty work."

Kaine also launched jerrytheduck.com to mock Kilgore for ducking debates. The site features an unflattering eight-second audio file of an exasperated, angry Kilgore in a 2003 debate brushing off Kaine's aggressive questioning.

Kilgore's campaign and some political columnists, pundits and bloggers say Kaine's radio ad and the Web site together imply to urban and suburban voters that Kilgore is a hick who is too dumb to govern, and a wimp to boot.

It is a perception that could harm Kilgore among suburban sophisticates in the sprawling bedroom communities surrounding Washington, D.C., Richmond and Hampton Roads.

For his part, Kilgore bought ads last week in small-town newspapers that call Kaine an elite "Harvard-educated liberal lawyer" who is denigrating the culture and heritage of country people by "attacking Jerry Kilgore's southwest Virginia accent."