RICHMOND, Va. – He's a Democrat who was elected in a heavily Republican state with a promise not to raise taxes — then went ahead and raised them. Even so, Gov. Mark R. Warner (search) is golden and his lieutenant governor hopes their association will help carry him to victory in this year's gubernatorial race.
Warner, a potential 2008 presidential contender, has a statewide job approval rating of 74 percent, a new poll shows. The Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. survey also found that 57 percent of its respondents actually approved of the $1.4 billion tax increase Warner threaded through the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature.
Virginia is the only state that denies its governors consecutive terms, and the race for Warner's successor pits Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (search) against Republican Jerry W. Kilgore (search), a former attorney general.
"If Kaine wins, it's going to be because people want to give Mark Warner a second term and they view electing Tim Kaine as the only way to do that," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
However, the poll showed 38 percent favored Kaine to 37 percent for Kilgore. A margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points makes them about even, although the same poll nearly a year ago showed Kaine trailing Kilgore by 5 points. Russ Potts (search), a Republican state senator running as an independent, was the choice of 9 percent, apparently draining support from Kilgore.
Kilgore disputes the poll and rejects the notion that Warner provides his opponent a boost.
"The voters are basing their decision upon the candidates for governor this year," Kilgore said.
But he also underscored his own ties to Warner.
"I've agreed with the governor on many, many issues," Kilgore said. "We do agree on some important issues that I believe helped Mark Warner win his governor's race to begin with: gun control, capital punishment, some of the social issues."
Kaine constantly defines himself as Warner's partner and heir, touting the fiscal management of a state that battled a $6 billion budget shortfall three years ago and how has a $544 million surplus. "Mark and I" and "Warner-Kaine administration" litter his campaign speeches, interviews and publications. He has dubbed his upcoming round of campaign stops the "Building On Success Tour."
"I know the governor's very energized about making the case that we've been going the right way and there's no cause to turn around," Kaine said.
Warner plans to make that case more forcefully starting Labor Day.
"I anticipate a busy fall on the political front, campaigning for Tim," he said in an interview.
Warner is becoming more aggressive about what he considers to be his legacy: budget reforms that he says were necessary to protect the state's perfect bond rating and to guarantee sufficient money public education, health care for the poor and aged, public safety and the federally mandated cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
He and Kaine have criticized Kilgore for opposing last year's tax package and the benefits that the poll suggests Virginians support. Kilgore counters that the surplus from robust economic growth proves he was right and the tax increase was not necessary.
Still, Warner's wide acclaim is based on compromising with Republicans, not defying them. As he assesses his chances for his party's 2008 presidential nomination, Warner has toured the nation urging Democrats to reclaim "the sensible center" and become competitive again in the South.
His popularity also derives from hundreds of luncheons and forums in remote communities governors rarely visit, particularly in the final semester of their terms.
"In rural Virginia, people took a chance on me. They saw this high-tech guy from Alexandria and I said I wouldn't forget them and I'd work my hardest to make sure their kids got a fair shake, and I've tried to honor that," Warner said.
On one trip this summer, Warner used a helicopter to visit three farming communities in about six hours.
At an unscheduled stop to buy a fresh shirt at a store in South Boston, he met Pam Trombley, who appealed for more money for her daughter's school. Warner wrote her name and phone number on a scrap of paper, brought it back to Richmond and told his staff to look into her appeal.
"Part of this is just showing up and reporting back," Warner said.