’08 Senate: Gilmore goes on attack against Warner
The Top Story by Chris Graham
Jim Gilmore standing at the podium in Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista at the foot of the Blue Ridge pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. A burly, hirsute man wearing a form-fitting Gilmore T-shirt handed the news reporter standing next to me a similarly-sized paper moments later. I guessed it was so that we’d have the quote right, though we were well-aware of what the former governor was going to say, from all the e-mails that we’d been getting about it.
That Mark Warner would later say that he doesn’t remember saying what he is said to have said is worthy of mention, as is the way that Gilmore had to be reminded of the content of a web ad released last week that effectively called Warner a liar, and the dance that Gilmore had to do around the reprobations that he threw Warner’s way for backing out of a televised debate with Gilmore when Gilmore himself sidestepped a debate with his Republican Party nomination rival earlier this year.
But more on all of that later. First, here’s what Jim Gilmore really, really wants you to know that Mark Warner said on May 25, 1994, in a speech to the National Jewish Democratic Council. “One of the things you are going to see is a coalition that is just about completely taken over the Republican Party in this state, and if they have their way it’s going to take over state government. It is made up of the Christian Coalition, but not just them. It is made up of the right-to-lifers, but not just them. It’s made up of the NRA, but not just them. It is made up of the homeschoolers, but not just them. It’s made up of a whole coalition of people that have all sorts of differing views that I think most of us in this room would find threatening to what it means to be an American.”
“He wants to be darn sure that his words don’t get out to the people of Virginia. He wants to be able to buy advertising and hope that the press will continue to push his issues the way they have,” Gilmore told reporters after stepping down from the stage, and after Warner himself had chided himself in a talk with reporters for being “over the top” in making the statement, even as he said he didn’t recall the occasion.
The intent of the Gilmore camp in drawing attention to the comment is clear. Warner has made his name in Virginia and national politics as a self-styled “radical centrist” and rare Democrat who can claim soccer moms and NASCAR and NRA dads among his base. Even Republicans concede his political influence, as Ben Cline, a member of the House of Delegates from Rockbridge County, did in a conversation with me minutes before the fireworks at Glen Maury. I had asked Cline his thoughts on the ’08 presidential election, and Cline said he was “confident that Virginia is going to stay a red state.” “Democrats only win in Virginia when they adopt Republican policies and philosophies and attitudes. So it might be close, but that’s only because Mark Warner has adopted that strategy,” Cline said. “Mark Warner has unlocked a lot of keys to winning in Virginia – paying attention to gun owners, paying attention to rural Virginia voters, and he’s reaped the benefits to that,” Cline said.
It would appear, then, that the only way that Gilmore could have even a sliver of a shot in a race that has him trailing McGovern-like in the polls in the area of 25 percent as we commence the fall campaign proper is to strike at the heart of the Warner base among those soccer moms and NASCAR and NRA dads. Warner, for what it’s worth, surprised me by responding to the Gilmore attack first on-stage by decrying the politics-as-usual approach that his predecessor in the governor’s mansion was initiating in the name of political expediency, then in talking matter of factly with reporters after his formal remarks. “What I’ve shown in my record is strong support for Second Amendment rights. Matter of fact, the NRA said I signed more pro-Second Amendment legislation than anyone. Heck, my own sister homeschools her kids. I am proud of the bipartisan support that I’ve received,” Warner said. “Mr. Gilmore can say whatever, but Virginians know us, know our records, know our approach. The last thing Washington needs is one more slash-and-burn politician. Politics has moved on in this country. My opponent has not,” Warner said.
“My record has shown the way I work with people – across party lines, across all kinds of lines. People know my record. If I said that, it was over the top,” Warner said.
Gilmore used the attention that he had gained for himself with his own over-the-top comments to play more politics-as-usual in pigeonholing Warner for offering “a lot of generalities” in his campaign, a tired tack that GOP presidential nominee John McCain has used against Democrat Barack Obama. “He didn’t explain what he was going to do about energy, about drilling. We know he’s not going to support Alaska drilling. His own supporters know that. He’s not going to support offshore drilling. He never denied that,” Gilmore told reporters after his speech.
I had talked with Warner about that very topic walking up the hill to Glen Maury from the annual Labor Day parade through the streets of Buena Vista earlier in the morning, and Warner was plenty explicit then. “Energy shouldn’t fall into a partisan line. Washington is trying to make it into an either-or – either you’re for alternative or you’re for drilling. We need to do both,” Warner said, repeating something I have heard from him on the campaign trail several times this year, and which he hypes on his campaign website.
That walk in the park was a study in contrast to what we heard from Gilmore later. Warner was still limping pretty badly from a basketball injury that had kept him from making a day of scheduled appearances in Waynesboro and Staunton two weeks earlier, but he still made it a point to crisscross the streets of Buena Vista as he does every year shaking hands with local residents and posing for pictures with people that he’s gotten to know from his many Valley visits dating back to the 1990s. This year’s walk was a little different in that Warner is now a star on the national political stage for the first time, with his keynote speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention prompting comment from some along the parade route about a future appearance in Buena Vista as Presidential Candidate Warner.
Warner’s focus is on the here and now – on winning his race for the U.S. Senate and on helping Barack Obama win Virginia in his own bid for the White House. “I’m proud that Virginia got a chance to highlight its story,” he said of his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. “I thought it was important, even though it might not have been politically smart, to talk about bipartisanship. Because that’s what the country needs. The country does need to celebrate common ground. You ask 80 percent of the people on this parade route, and they want things fixed. They’re not as concerned about whether it’s a D or an R. They want a chance to see their lives improved,” Warner said.
Gilmore seems to want to play to the bread-and-butter issues himself, though his approach to the music sounds to be a bit out of tune. For instance, Gilmore made it a point to talk up taxes, specifically the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that are set to expire and that he tried to turn into something that would somehow adversely affect middle-class Virginians, and Warner’s position on proposed legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize that the big-business elites are trying to block with their own bottom-line interests in line. “The fact is that while it was a nice speech with a lot of supporters and campaign workers out there to cheer, this race is about the issues of the day, to address the concerns of the people of Virginia,” Gilmore said after giving his own nice speech that his supporters and campaign workers had themselves cheered. “We will address these issues relentlessly, and Mark Warner will avoid them, and avoid debating in a forum that gives us an opportunity to explain our positions to the people of Virginia,” Gilmore said, using the other bullet that his campaign has left in its six-shooter, the news from last week that Warner has said he will not participate in a debate being organized by the League of Women Voters of Virginia that would be televised statewide.
Warner told reporters yesterday that he was still considering signing on to a televised debate with Gilmore, who awkwardly had to defend his strong words about Warner’s reluctance to debate him in light of his own refusal to debate Northern Virginia lawmaker Bob Marshall when the two were competing for the Republican Senate nomination earlier this year. “Because we had a small universe of people. We were all personally talking to all of those people,” Gilmore said by way of explanation of his own debate duck. “This is a debate before the entire population of the people of Virginia. This is where the difference is. Historically, people have always gone out and talked to all the people, people who can’t be talked to one-on-one. In a convention situation, you can. We were in a position to do that. You can’t do that in a general-election campaign.”
Also awkward was Gilmore’s clumsy response to a reporter on a web ad that his campaign put out last week titled “Notorious Politicians and Their Lies.” The reporter wanted to know if Gilmore stood by the content of the ad. Gilmore responded initially, “I actually haven’t studied it. What was the topic that we …” After being reminded of its message, having to do with the 2004 bipartisan tax increase that Warner supported along with a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly, Gilmore said, “I stand by that ad,” and when the reporter pressed him on whether Gilmore would then say that Mark Warner is a liar, he shot back, “I would say that I stand by that ad. I would stand by the fact that he misled people.”