Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman


Warner vs. Allen...

Earlier this month I went fishing. Look what the boy landed!


Like a true native born Southern boy, I baited the hooked and tossed out the line into the Warner vs. Allen 2006 Senate election pond. Then, I laid back, had a few brews, closed my eyes until a pull on the line rocked me back.

Sure enough, I reeled in the Big One: some real, honest-to-goodness poll numbers. Several sources -- admittedly friends of the governor - told me that Warner is the most popular governor in modern Virginia history, save perhaps for the last six months of Chuck Robb's term when the former Senator was Governor and polled above 80 percent on the popularity meter.

Naturally, I checked with a couple of sources not as friendly to the governor who had seen some other polling numbers from different parts of the state. They hemmed and hawed but basically confirmed it. However, they quickly spun the poll numbers as "soft," a term used in political circles to indicate support based on a nice-guy image, not on the "hard" data of support for an individual on an ideological or specific issue/performance measure.

Frankly, while I have used these terms myself, they can be highly subjective. More importantly, what difference does it make if they are "soft" or "hard"? A voter gets only one vote whether she/he loves or hates a candidate or falls in-between. A "soft" positive vote counts the same as a "hard" positive vote.

In theory, a "soft" positive voter -- say a Republican or Independent who might vote for Warner over Allen right now -- is someone the senator would have a good shot switching to his side in 2006 after forcing the Governor to take stands on tough issues or defend his record.

In that regard, Professors Larry Sabato and Bob Holsworth may be right in saying that it is not hard for any office-holder to create a soft, positive image by refusing to lead the fight on the tough issues of the day. But this is academic psychobabble; it fails to understand the realities of politics, namely that in the end, "soft" positives decide a lot of elections and anyone who can get them in large numbers is a very strong political figure.

Net, net then: My sources agree on the current lay of the political land in terms of Warner and Allen. Warner, whether soft, hard or whatever, polls as popular in Virginia as Rudy Guiliani essentially did in New York when folks last checked his chances in a 2006 race against Senator Hillary Clinton. At that time, Rudy led Hillary by a 17 percent (56 percent to 39 percent) margin in the Empire State where she is as popular as George Allen is in Virginia.

Warner as Rudy, Coach Allen's kid as Bill's soulmate? No wonder Rush Limbaugh has been gulping down those pain-killers faster than his doctor's could
write the prescriptions.

But back to my fish story. This search for the 80 percent poll number got me thinking like the Old Man and the Sea, remembering the role of fishing in Virginia politics. In terms of a statewide contest such as a Warner vs. Allen race, GUV candidate Jerry Baliles in 1985 is the last statewide hopeful to make a love of fishing a key plank in his image building. When I say "image building" this is not to be interpreted as questioning the Baliles/fishing connection. However, whether we like it or not, TV images do dominate our political processes, and this is a fact of life regrettable or otherwise.

Candidate Warner dressed up in a camouflage outfit and went hunting for Turkey, I think it was, to prove he wasn't some North-of-the-Mason Dixon line elitist wimp, but a real Southern Comfort boy at heart. Remember the Doug Wilder commercial with the Beefy Law Man, Chuck Robb aiming that pistol into the TV camera at a police firing range, or Mark Earley looking like a deer in the headlights on some badly staged porch in 2001? Some images work, others don't.

Take Surfer Dude George Allen. He grew up a Beach Boys' beach boy hanging five in ARNULD country, but now goes around with cowboy boots, and a wad of Redman between his cheek and gum, to act the role of mechanic "Cooter" from The Dukes of Hazzard. (When Ben Jones wants to pretend to be "Cooter" Jones, he drives around with a Confederate Flag on the hood of a car and fools Democratic leaders into thinking this will make him a real conservative Southern boy for Virginia voters.)

In terms of Virginia history, the image of Jerry Baliles, Patrick County boy making good, still in touch with his roots even as he rises to the office of governor, is the rare case these days. Wilder and Gilmore were your urban and suburban local guys, natural to the Virginia scene as Allen and Warner were not.

But then, even the legendary Harry F. Byrd Sr. was not born in Virginia. Not long ago, politicians like John Warner went to great lengths to prove their ancestors' bones had been buried here longer than those of their opponents. This amazes young people today. But in those days, hopefuls like Robb and Warner, who had made their names outside of Virginia, were seen as path-breaking candidates in the Old Dominion. Today, we have Ms. Liz Taylor's ex in one U.S. senate seat, a lifeguard from Baywatch country in the other, and a Harrrvard boy as governor.

Finally, what Paul Goldman was laughed at for fighting to achieve is now true in Virginia: Today, you are judged more on who you are than who your ancestors were. Every Southerner, native or otherwise, has to applaud that. We are all Virginians.

In some respects, the likely Republican 2005 GUV nominee Jerry Kilgore is trying the first Baliles-like image in a generation, a son of the more rural Virginia who has not forgotten his roots but can "play" in the vote rich suburban and urban enclaves. Baliles, who put this trifecta together better than anyone else by carrying every one of Virginia's congressional districts, proved a very adept fisherman in this pond. We Democrats had better realize that if Kilgore can talk that talk and walk that walk, he will not be the push-over the Democratic high command thinks he will be.

But that is for a later date. Let's get back to fishing, and the fact that yours truly has proven to be a decent angler, at least on dry land, logged onto a computer miles away from any pond or stream.

Admittedly, some or all of my sources could have been "spinning me," feeding the kid bad numbers, for their political purposes. But that being said, let me repeat what no one can now dispute: The governor's political operatives are not shy in making sure Democrats know their polls say he is the most popular Governor, in terms of polling, in the state's history since Chuck Robb's last year in office, when his approval rating moved above 80.

That's right: The number "around" 80 rolls off so many Democratic lips it is the benchmark number. Whether a little lower, a little higher, it would be within the margin of polling error anyway.

For sure, given the differences in the states and personalities, the Guiliani vs. Clinton race is far from a perfect analogy. But if we assume -- as I will - that the 80 percent approval level is what is showing in Warner/Democratic polls across the Commonwealth, my hunch was right in "Mark Warner vs. George Allen" (October 6, 2003): There is no way Senator Allen is ahead right now in a match-up with the Democratic governor.

The 56 percent to 39 percent lead by the former New York City mayor over the sitting New York senator is not, of course, the spread here in Virginia. But a 49-percent to 39-percent Warner margin over Allen would be the range in a match-up between the most popular governor in the modern era and the sometimes polarizing junior senator. Again, assuming these polling numbers are real.

However, as someone who writes about polling numbers, what I heard last week makes did at least make me wonder whether I was ground zero in a numbers game or two. Why? Simply this: If you assume this approval rating, then it seems odd Democratic candidates in 2003 are not making more of Warner's popularity. It seems equally curious Lt. Governor Tim Kaine is not doing what Baliles did so effectively in 1985 by attaching himself to Robb.

I would think Kaine would be fighting to be seen as the First Defender, the most pro-Warner guy out there, just as Baliles ran as Robb II. True, we are not in the actual gubernatorial election year right now, so there is a difference in timing. But the political calculation is the same.

Finally, an 80 percent, Robb-sized approval rating says Warner could challenge the GOP/General Assembly to put his tax reform proposal on the November, 2004 ballot if they refuse to pass it next year. They would almost surely have to agree, giving Warner a chance to do something historic, something that would stop all this frivolous "no legacy talk" we get from Sabato and Holsworth and others.

What do those guys know about building a legacy for a governor? Even their 20-20 hindsight has proven wrong. Clearly, an 80 percent approval rating says Warner is positioned to do many of things Sabato and Holsworth want him to do. They should offer him their ideas, as some of us have already done in areas of education, finance, transportation and the budget.

Admittedly, a high-profile referendum fight to find, for example, an extra $4 billion more for education over the next 10 years than otherwise would be invested is going to be seen as roll of the dice. But Warner could win it. I would lead the ground war for free, I am that sure it would be won.  

I have led those fights before. This one would be an easy win in my opinion, if you did it right.

As they say at Fox News, I report, You Decide.

Like all anglers, I have at least learned the basics of a good fish story. Did I land the big one? Or did some folks send me on a fishin' expedition?

We will know soon enough.

-- October 20, 2003



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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.


You can reach him at