San Diego Union Tribune

October 23, 2005

2 races for governor in spotlight
National attention is on Virginia, N.J.

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – With presidential and congressional elections in hibernation, national political watchers have turned their attention to battles for governor on Nov. 8 in Virginia and New Jersey.

They'll be looking for clues about voter mood as the parties gear up for Senate and House races next year and survey the presidential field for 2008.

National issues, including illegal immigration, stem cell research and President Bush's waning popularity, are hot topics in the races. Both are relatively close, belying the normal political leanings of the states.

Virginia is strongly Republican, but Democratic candidate Tim Kaine has gotten a boost from the popularity of outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Warner. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, is opposed by former Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.

New Jersey is as blue as Virginia is red. But Democrat Jon Corzine, a U.S. senator, has struggled to distance himself from a state Democratic power structure widely viewed as corrupt, giving an unexpected boost to Republican Doug Forrester, a businessman.

The issues that have dominated the races are likely to surface in other political contests next year, when control of Congress will be at stake.

"There will be a lot of interpretations at the end of it," Republican analyst Ed Rollins said of the gubernatorial elections.

With the president's popularity at an all-time low and several top congressional and White House officials ensnared in legal probes, Republicans are increasingly nervous about the national political climate. Bush has kept a low profile in the state races, though White House surrogates have made appearances for Kilgore and Forrester.

A September Washington Post poll found that Virginians were 45 percent less likely to support Kilgore because Bush endorsed him, while 28 percent were more likely to back him. A recent poll by The New York Times showed that Bush was less of a factor in New Jersey, where 58 percent said their feelings about the president would not be a factor in their votes.

Kaine and Corzine have tried to capitalize on Bush's unpopularity by portraying their foes as close allies of the White House.

"Bush isn't helping either Republican nominee," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

But Sabato and other analysts cautioned that national politics may not have much impact on the outcome of either race.

"I think it will be a local outcome; it's a local fight," Peter Woolley, a pollster at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University, said.

Some of the local issues resonate nationally, however. When officials in Herndon, Va., a town on the booming suburban fringe of Washington, D.C., voted to open a center where largely Latino day laborers could gather, Kilgore strongly denounced the move, noting that many of the workers were here illegally.

"I do not support using taxpayer dollars to fund illegal immigration," Kilgore said in a recent debate, pointing out his earlier efforts to deny illegal immigrants in-state university tuition and drivers licenses.

Kaine responded that, though he was "deeply opposed" to illegal immigration, building the center was a local decision.

While polls show that illegal immigration has not been a major issue statewide, Kilgore's stand resonated with some voters in northern Virginia, the most urbanized part of the state and home to a burgeoning Hispanic population.

"I think it's horrible. I'm voting for Kilgore," Warren Duff, 44, a construction worker, said as he walked out of a Herndon 7-11 on a recent morning, clutching a coffee and a diet Pepsi.

The parking lot of the convenience store is a gathering place for young Latino men waiting for construction contractors and other employers to drive up and offer them work. As Duff spoke, a white van pulled into the parking lot, quickly filled with jostling workers and sped off.

Kilgore is hoping the issue will rile Republican voters in the suburbs. A recent poll by the political newsletter Hotline showed that Virginia Democrats were far more motivated by the race than Republicans.

Kilgore also pushed another hot button recently when he unleashed a barrage of highly emotional TV ads challenging Kaine on the death penalty. Capital punishment is popular in Virginia, which is second only to Texas in the number of people it has executed in recent years.

"Tim Kaine has worked to eliminate the death penalty from his days at Harvard Law School all the way to his call for a moratorium on the death penalty," Kilgore said after releasing the ads, which featured family members of murder victims denouncing Kaine.

Kaine, a Roman Catholic, has vowed to enforce the death penalty, though he said he personally opposes it on religious grounds.

"My faith teaches that life is sacred," he said in an ad. "But I take my oath of office seriously, and I'll enforce the death penalty."

The race in New Jersey has also become increasingly negative. Forrester recently intensified his criticism of Corzine in a TV ad linking him to former Democratic Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned amid a sex scandal, and pointing out that Corzine gave $470,000 to the head of a union that represents state employees, to help her pay a mortgage.

With dozens of New Jersey officials on trial or under indictment, public corruption is a major issue in the race. Both candidates have vowed to impose new ethical standards on state government.

"He's cast his lot with the wrong people, the wrong politics, the wrong policies," Forrester said of Corzine in a recent debate.

Corzine has shot back with ads linking Forrester to Bush and questioning government contracts with Forrester's company, which manages prescription drug benefits.

"He either had no-bid contracts or, because of his political contributions, he's been able to get contracts where he is the high-cost bidder," Corzine said in the debate.

The two have also sparred over stem cell research. Corzine has proposed spending $400 million to promote the research in New Jersey, following the lead of California and other states.

Forrester has backed Bush's decision to sharply limit research on human embryonic stem cells and says the state cannot afford the investment Corzine proposed.

High property taxes are another big issue in the race. Both candidates have proposed relief plans. Corzine promised to increase tax rebates by 40 percent over the next four years, while Forrester is calling for a 30 percent reduction in property taxes over three years.

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