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Gubernatorial candidates get early start on bickering
Virginia squabble mirrors national trend toward nastiness in political discourse, pundits say.

Date published: 5/1/2005

RICHMOND--Sen. Russ Potts says it's like kids in a sandbox. Pundit Robert Denton likens it to two 9-year-olds fighting. Editorial pages in various newspapers have called it petty and immature.

Welcome to gubernatorial campaign 2005, where the calendar says spring but the sniping feels more like fall.

The fight between Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine and Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore has already seen both campaigns using strident language--such as calling each other's tactics "desperate"--and silly antics, such as a fake memo from the Kilgore camp and a dressed-up duck from the Kaine folks. Kaine's campaign also set up a Web site, jerrytheduck.com, which accuses Kilgore of ducking debates.

Potts, a Republican senator from Winchester, is running as an independent, and Warrenton Mayor George Fitch is running against Kilgore for the nomination.

But it's the tactics of Kaine and Kilgore that have observers talking.

Such behavior isn't new--in 2001, for example, the gubernatorial campaigns turned a debate into a circus, bringing in a pig and a trampoline.

But the tone this year between Kaine and Kilgore is unusually snippy, unusually early.

"It's like having two 9-year-olds fighting. It's kind of at that level, that is both petty and somewhat nasty," said Virginia Tech political analyst Robert Denton.

"It's humorous on one side, sometimes sarcastic, but that just needles the other side. And what you're hoping for is an over-response, where one will appear out of control, lose one's composure. It used to be you would steal each other's yard signs. That was the biggest aggravation. But now it's well beyond that."

Denton said campaigns typically go through four phases. They start with portraying the candidate's own biographical details, then move to talking about issues. Those two usually last until the fall.

"It's really the third phase, a few weeks out, that you get into the attack phase, the punch-counterpunch," Denton said. "We've skipped to what have been very personal attacks."

University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth agreed.

"The calendar says April, but these two candidates are going at it like it's late October," Farnsworth said. "Normally there's a crescendo. Normally the campaigns are pretty quiet until the fall, and that's when campaigns usually get their nastiest. This is really unusual, to see two candidates fighting this aggressively this early."

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