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A Battle Of Moderates In Virginia

By Gene Randall/CNN

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ARLINGTON, Va. (May 8) -- Virginia Gov. George Allen can't run again, and this year's race to replace him is shaping up as a high-stakes contest between two moderates.

Three-and-a-half years after being elected state attorney general, 47-year-old Republican Jim Gilmore wants the big prize: a GOP baton pass from Allen, who can't serve a second consecutive term under Virginia law.

Still, Allen's 61 percent approval rating offers Gilmore a strong boost.

A former county prosecutor who talks tough on crime, Gilmore wants 4,000 new teachers in Virginia's public schools and he is holding out the promise of dramatic property-tax cuts.

"We will exempt the first $20,000 of personal property taxes," Gilmore says. "This tax cut is a dividend. It's a dividend from our growing economy, from the policies that we've followed that have added new revenues."

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Democrat Don Beyer, in his eighth year as lieutenant governor, says he would be the education governor, pushing for higher teacher standards and higher salaries, paid for by economic growth.

In Virginia, political gospel doesn't allow talk of tax increases.

"I am not going to sign any pledge," Beyer said. "I think those are irresponsible political gimmicks, but I've also said that I have no intention of raising taxes."

Beyer's nomination, too, is uncontested. In fact, he and Gilmore have a lot in common. "Beyer is for the most part a 'new Democrat' -- a moderate Democrat many believe is fairly conservative on fiscal issues," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist from American University. "Jim Gilmore is a moderate, conservative Republican, so really the differences between these candidates are going to be marginal in many respects," he said.

With his brother, Beyer owns two car dealerships in politically powerful northern Virginia. He has given his trademark Volvo to his 16-year-old daughter, and uses a Chevrolet as a campaign car.

Characterizing himself as very much in the mainstream, Beyer ties Gilmore to the religious right. "And he is very close to Pat Robertson and a lot of the folks that represent the most extreme elements in the Virginia political realm," Beyer said.

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Similar Democratic charges helped undo Oliver North's GOP Senate bid in Virginia in 1994. A year earlier, Republican home-schooling advocate Michael Farris, a fundamentalist champion, lost for lieutenant governor to Beyer.

Gilmore says the extremist label won't stick.

"The Republican Party of Virginia is unified, and that means that those kind of scary tactics aren't going to work this year," he said. "They're just not going to work."

Early polls have the race a statistical dead heat, with Gilmore at 43 percent and Beyer at 41 percent. Turnout in November will be key and each campaign will spend millions to mobilize its support. Both major national parties have a stake in how it ends up.

With 36 states set to vote for governor in 1998, a awful lot will be read into what happens in Virginia in 1997, since the party that wins here will certainly claim it is a sign of things to come.





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