The signs begin miles away from the Shad Planking. On spindly wire legs and wooden stakes, they march relentlessly along U.S. 460. First they appear in clusters. Then in long lines, spaced a few feet apart. Then crowds, until they form a solid wall of campaign colors and jumbled letters: Kil Kilgo K Tim Ka Tim K.
Other candidates' signs join in the fray, notably the red-and-white ones for independent Republican gubernatorial contender Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. But they are hopelessly outnumbered by Republican Jerry Kilgore's orange and blue, and even more so by Democrat Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's blue and red. Crumpled casualties victims of foul play? lie in ditches. In the field used for parking, the Democrats deliver the coup de grce: a string of nine giant signs dangling from the upraised arm of a cherry picker.
(A fourth gubernatorial candidate, George Fitch, is challenging Kilgore for the Republican nomination in the June 2005 primary. Fitch, the mayor of Warrenton, is also known for founding the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team that inspired the 1993 Disney film "Cool Runnings." Fitch has been running a low-profile campaign that was not examined for this story).
The candidates are easy to pick out among the thousands of people milling around the wooded lot where the shad are planked. There's Kilgore up the hill you can tell by the orange-and-blue signs bouncing around his head, hoisted by volunteers to make sure any photos taken have a favorable backdrop. And there by the entrance is Kaine shaking hands, surrounded by a similar halo of signs.
All eyes are on the candidates, milling genially with the crowds. But look carefully and you will notice certain people hovering in the candidates' outer orbit like whirring satellites, BlackBerries and vibrating cell phones in their hands.
They watch the crowds closely, ready to steer their candidates right or left. They seek out reporters with whom to share strategic bits of information. And they always, always keep a close eye on the Other Side.
They are the handlers.
Managing a gubernatorial campaign is a serious endeavor. There are volunteers to rally, staff to hire, donations to solicit, events to squeeze in, ads to film, reporters to humor, policies to sell.
"When you look at it, it's a ten- to twenty-million-dollar corporation that we're running here," says Ken Hutcheson, Kilgore's campaign manager. Kilgore had raised about $7.2 million as of March 31, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, and Kaine nearly $8 million.Yet the two big campaigns occupy the shabbiest million-dollar-company headquarters you've ever seen.
Kaine's offices are a rambling warren of rooms in two neighboring buildings off West Broad Street, one donated by S&K Menswear Chairman Stuart C. Siegel. The décor is an antiquated jumble of striped carpet, beige wall-weave and exposed concrete. The air conditioning cools only half of the second floor, campaign staff note with chagrin.
The conference table in Kilgore's cubicled North Side headquarters, plain and a bit worn around the edges, cost $25. But the new-looking black chairs surrounding it "Those are far nicer chairs than you would ever see in any campaign I've ever worked on before," Hutcheson says. A reckless splurge? No way.
One day Hutcheson saw a newspaper ad for office chairs that cost $19 each, after $70 worth of rebates. "I made everybody go to Staples and purchase one chair, and they got reimbursed and then we cashed in the rebates," he says. Now that's real fiscal conservatism, Kilgore's aides say with satisfaction.
It is the nature of campaign offices to be makeshift. Smart candidates don't pay for mahogany tables or office space in a gleaming tower. They put their money where their mouth is namely, in the cadre of advisers who help them decide what to say and how to say it.
The Kilgore Campaign
Soft echoes of Kilgore's famous Southwest Virginia accent which has become a campaign issue can be heard throughout his campaign office. No wonder not only do his aides claim long allegiance to Virginia Republicans, but several grew up in the same remote corner of the state as Kilgore did.
In the case of Senior Adviser Joe Carico, a former commonwealth's attorney in Wise County, Kilgore is genuine family. "The Kilgores are actually very distant on my grandmother's side. So they're kin to me somehow," he says with a laugh. "You know way, way down the line."
Carico became close to the Kilgore family when he became involved in politics as a high school student. "They were the only real big Republicans in town, or in that region," he says. "It was not cool to be a Republican then, you know."
Campaign Director Chris Nolen, a Floyd County native, also got to know the Kilgores through the local party structure. When Nolen was only 18, he became chairman of the Floyd County Republican Party.
There's something else the Kilgore team has in common: Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen. Many of the staff worked for Allen at some point during his rise from state delegate to congressman to governor to senator.
Kilgore's press secretary, Tim Murtaugh, held the same post with Allen during his 2000 senatorial campaign. Campaign Manager Ken Hutcheson was Allen's political director. Kilgore's policy director, Carrie Cantrell, began her political career interning for Allen's gubernatorial campaign and became his press secretary after he was elected senator.
The voices of the campaign are Murtaugh and Tucker Martin, deputy press secretary. Together they form a sort of yin-yang of public relations. Murtaugh, 35, has worked in communications for the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of Virginia and the state attorney general's office. He's inclined to be cautious and, some might say, a bit dour.
Martin, 26, was a speechwriter and political ad creator before going to work for Virginia House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and then Kilgore. He's full of manic energy that lends itself to creative thinking ("Shoulda had orangutans at the kickoff," he says. "And what if a monkey came, hit the trampoline, did a 360 and bla-dow! And then the lights go up
and monkeys come in on both sides, peel away") and fierce Nerf basketball games in the back of Kilgore HQ. "Murtaugh won't play because Murtaugh's no fun," Martin complains.
Both are dead serious about their primary duties, however: assailing Kaine and informing Kilgore.
At night, Martin says, "you don't want to go to bed at eleven o'clock, cause you know if you wait just forty minutes, the news stories from the next day will start showing up on the wire."
"If I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water or something," Murtaugh adds, "I'll make a pit stop at the computer."
Martin one-ups him. "I take my dog out about four a.m. every morning. And I'll stop by the BlackBerry and I'll turn it on and look and make sure everything's all right. And he'll bark at me and say, 'Ugh.'" Meaning the dog, not Kilgore.
The head of the operation is Campaign Manager Hutcheson. The campaign signs on his office walls summarize colorfully his career in Virginia politics: Stolle. Bolling. Bush. Allen. Warner. Byron. All are still in office. (The Warner is U.S. Sen. John Warner. Definitely not that other guy.)
Most recently, Hutcheson worked as Sen. Warner's 2002 reelection campaign manager, executive director of the Virginians For Jerry Kilgore political action committee and executive director of President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in Virginia.
"It's been a fun eleven years," Hutcheson says. "A grueling eleven years. But I've got a lot of good friends and good experiences to show for it."
Especially good friends. "He has a knowledge of the grassroots of Virginia politics right now that is unparalleled," says Chris Ashby, an attorney with Troutman Sanders in Northern Virginia who worked with Hutcheson on State Sen. Ken Stolle's 1997 campaign. "He knows everyone people at the top of the party, the most important people, down to the precinct level." Recognizing ground-level volunteers and donors makes an enormous difference to a campaign, he says. It means that if Hutcheson "asks you to do something, you'll do it for him."
Hutcheson has strong ties to his own team as well. He's worked with Murtaugh since 1999 and known Nolen for "I don't know how many years now." He says, "We're all just a tremendous unit.
Once we come together, it brings a lot to the table."
Hutcheson's hand is on every aspect of the campaign: budgeting, fund-raising, long-term strategizing, staff hiring, and maintaining contact with the White House, the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.
And then there is Operation $19 Chair. "Every dollar we don't spend," Hutcheson says, "is a dollar that I can hire somebody with, pay for more TV with, more direct mail, more radio. So that's really what the bottom line is for me."
Hutcheson's company, Old Dominion Strategies LLC, has received $40,000 this year as of March 31, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. From June 2002 to March 2005, his company had been paid $267,000 in consulting fees from Virginians for Jerry Kilgore.
The Kaine Campaign
Kaine's camp is definitely not Old Virginia. His top advisers have worked on high-profile campaigns all over the country. Press Secretary Mo Elleithee's most recent jobs include Janet Reno's campaign for governor in Florida and the presidential campaigns of Bob Graham and Wesley Clark. Kaine Campaign Manager Mike Henry has run three congressional races and two senate races in Iowa, Florida, Illinois and Maryland.
But they aren't strangers to Virginia politics. Henry has worked on House and Senate Democratic caucuses as well as the Democratic Coordinated Campaign in 2001. Elleithee worked on Chuck Robb's 2000 campaign for Senate and Mark Warner's gubernatorial campaign a year later. Both met Kaine during the Warner campaign. They were immediately struck, they say, by the lieutenant governor's authenticity, approachability and ease in crowds.
"It's almost like he's not a politician," Henry says. "He is just like everybody's dad." Sound familiar? It's an image Kaine's campaign is bent on conveying. A recent TV ad featuring his three children ends with his daughter, Annella, chirping: "Tim Kaine. A great dad for governor."
Even Kaine's attire says "regular guy." At the Shad Planking, Kilgore wore a salmon button-down shirt with impeccably pressed khakis and yes matching khaki socks. Kaine opted for a blue polo shirt and jeans.
The Kaine corps often wears jeans to work. "You dress up when you gotta dress up," Elleithee says in a gravelly, affable voice. He's fond of tropical shirts on warm days. Once, he says, CNN filmed him and other campaign workers tossing around a Janet Reno Frisbee on the beach. He recalls how his mother was less than pleased to see him wearing shorts and sandals: "You're going to be on CNN," she said. "You couldn't have worn something nicer?"
"The Other Side, are they in suits all the time?" Henry asks of the Kilgore team. Not exactly, although ties and business wear are de rigueur in the Kilgore office. Well, John Kerry's workers also wore jeans, one Kilgore aide notes. Where did that get them?
Henry is the head of Kaine's troops. He's a compact man, always neatly dressed, who, one guesses, is sick of being told he looks just like Michael J. Fox.
A New Jersey native who lives in Alexandria, Henry, 36, attended Old Dominion University. Among his first campaigns were L. Douglas Wilder's bid for governor and chiropractor Alan Krasnoff's run for Chesapeake City Council; Krasnoff is still in office after 15 years.
Henry is one of those guys who thrives on the competition of campaigns, never settling down with a successful candidate after the race is run. After graduating from college, he says: "I went to go work for Tom Harkin in Iowa. Came back, worked for Chuck Robb in the Shenandoah Valley. Then I worked for the speaker of the house in '92 and '93 in Virginia, 'cause I lived in Charlottesville. I worked on his caucus program, to protect the majority. Want me to keep going?" he asks dubiously. Next came Iowa again. Virginia. Texas. An assortment of Southern congressional races for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Florida. "You really want all this?"
Henry and Elleithee are "just unbelievably talented young men," says Steve Jarding, who worked with them as campaign manager for Mark Warner's 2001 campaign. Jarding now lectures on politics and policy at Harvard University.
It's hard to find great campaign operatives, Jarding says. "It's a terrible business. The hours are long, the pay is lousy, the [job] security's nonexistent." As of March 31, Kaine had paid Henry about $35,000 since January. Elleithee and Henry both have the necessary qualifications, Jarding says: They're loyal to what their candidate stands for, easygoing, serious about their work and rarely rattled.
In 2001, Henry ran the coordinated campaign Jarding credits for Warner's win, a $3.5 million endeavor that reached 2.7 million Virginia households. Elleithee was the rare press secretary who built rapport with reporters while staying out of the spotlight, Jarding says. "It wasn't 'Mo first,'" he says. "It was 'How do we best move the message of Mark Warner?'"
Aides to both Kaine and Kilgore profess little interest in who's working for the Other Side. "I think about it a little bit," Elleithee says. "
So, you know, you study the game tapes from past games just to kinda get a sense of what you might expect. But other than that, it doesn't really affect me too much."
Camp Kilgore says much the same, though they proudly point out their home-team advantage. "If you were to match the experience level of the people here on this campaign, the number of campaigns and the number of years that we've collectively worked in Virginia politics," Hutcheson says, "I don't think it would be comparable to any other campaign ever in Virginia history." He counts 94 years of collective experience in Virginia politics between Kilgore and his six top staffers.
Which is the better practice for a candidate? To hire campaign workers he or she has worked with in state politics for years, or to seek out those with experience from big campaigns across the nation?
When lecturing on campaign management, Jarding tells his would-be politicians, "The simple rule for me is, you got one shot at this." Don't ask your brother to run your campaign, he tells them. Don't hire the secretary you've had for the last 10 years if she's not the best secretary you can find. "Go hire the best people available, period."
By surrounding yourself with longtime friends, Jarding says, you assure loyalty but "it could be dangerous too." It's hard to criticize a friend, he points out, and part of a strategist's job is telling the candidate things he or she doesn't want to hear.
That's true, says Linda Hobgood, director of the Speech Center at the University of Richmond and herself a longtime speechwriter, campaign manager and consultant. However, she points out, in a governor's race like this one, it helps to have people on your side who intimately understand the nature of Virginia.
"I want someone who knows the difference between the Northern Neck and a place like Covington and a place like Winchester," Hobgood says someone, she says, who laughs at "You are very Richmond if
" jokes. The problem with bringing in "guaranteed sure-fire consultants," she says, is that they don't understand the subtleties of state politics and "most of the time, they're a bit heavy-handed."
Both Kilgore and Kaine went to the big guys to handle their ads.
Kaine hired the Washington, D.C., firm Struble Eichenbaum Communications. Last year, the ad team of Karl Struble and David Eichenbaum achieved something most unexpected: the installation of two Democratic governors in two Republican-as-they-come states: Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Brian Schweitzer in Montana. Team Kaine is betting they can do it again.
They'll have competition. In 2003, Campaigns & Elections Magazine dubbed two men "The Nation's Two Hottest Media Consultants." Struble was one. The other was his archrival and now media consultant to Kilgore, Scott Howell.
Howell helped take down two of Struble's prominent clients: Georgia Sen. Max Cleland in 2002 and South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004.
Hobgood notes that Kaine's warm-n-fuzzy "dad ad," featuring his three children, looks exactly like an ad for Daschle's victorious opponent, Howell client Sen. John Thune. "They learned something from defeat," she says of Struble Eichenbaum.
In today's media-centric campaigns, ad wars are a given and can be just as critical as a candidate's stance on the issues. A notorious ad for Cleland's opponent, Saxby Chambliss, showed pictures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein while criticizing the candidate's voting record and leadership on fighting terrorism. The ad outraged many, given that Cleland lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam.
Howell did not produce the ad, but later defended it. Kilgore spokesman Murtaugh would not comment on that ad specifically, but says, "We've always been of the view that voting records are completely fair game." Howell was hired, Murtaugh says, because he's the "best in the business." The Kilgore campaign refused to allow Style to interview Howell for this story.
Struble describes Howell's style in a sentence: "There's nothing too low to try." Struble says he doesn't expect the Virginia race to get quite as nasty as the Cleland-Chambliss race. But things are heating up.
Kaine has started airing ads on the same religious and rural-area radio stations as Kilgore, which is an unusual move, Kaine's Struble says. "We're not going to give an inch, and we're going to fight for every voter in the state."
As for Kilgore's team, "We'll have a very aggressive media operation that'll hopefully attract people with its positive viewpoints, messaging," Hutcheson said in late March. The back-and-forth has begun.
Kilgore's ads use several different narrators, like the man who intones, "Faith is measured by how we live our lives" like a Civil War battle film voice-over.
The Kaine folks picked up on it. In a Kaine ad titled "Weak," a woman's voice asks: "What is Jerry Kilgore afraid of? And why won't he speak for himself? Tim Kaine does." On a recently launched attack Web site, www.jerrytheduck.com, the Kaine folks posted a brief sound clip of Kilgore from an earlier debate: "I have no duty to you, Mr. Lieutenant Governor," he says in a tense, high-pitched voice.
Kilgore's folks take that to mean Kaine is making fun of their candidate's accent and speaking style and they staunchly defend him. "It's who he is," Murtaugh says. "The fact is, Jerry Kilgore's from Southwest Virginia. He's a real person from a real place. All Virginians are real people from real places."
Kaine's people contend Kilgore's team is jumping to conclusions and creating an issue where there is none.
Meanwhile, Kilgore's ads, and a recurring Web site series called "Kaine vs. Kaine," tag Kaine as an inconsistent liberal. "You ever wind up behind a car that has the right-hand blinker going the whole time?" says one recent ad. "He's telling you he's going right, and suddenly he turns hard to the left. Now that's what it's like being around Tim Kaine."
Expect more of the same.
The Potts campaign
Thomas J. D'Amore Jr., senior adviser to independent candidate Potts, watches with a shrug. The only conclusion D'Amore can draw, he says, is that both sides just have too much money to spend. Kaine had paid about $119,000 for radio and TV as of March 31. Kilgore had spent a little more than $91,000.
"It's not very conservative thinking," D'Amore says. "It's wasteful. And they're not talking about anything real." What voters are thinking, he says, is "My goodness, are we going to have to listen to this for six or seven months?
Is there anyone out there who is taking a different approach to this?"
Potts is going to wait to get into the fray until voters are actually paying attention, D'Amore says. For now, the campaign's main concern is raising money and getting the 10,000 signatures required to be on the ballot. "That's what our total focus is now," D'Amore says. "We're confident that we're going to qualify."
Potts, a maverick senator who broke away from the Republican Party to run for governor, has a lean campaign. Forget having a hive of handlers Potts has D'Amore for strategy, a handful of young volunteers and loyal aides, and a 21-year-old political director, Adam Piper.
The last day of April, Piper finished his final exam at the University of South Carolina, where he's a junior, packed his Jeep and drove to Virginia. "It's been nonstop since then," he says.
Piper knows he's facing off against campaign experts with decades of experience, but he remains unfazed. "In some ways, not being jaded by twenty years of campaigns and being stagnant is an advantage," he says. "This campaign, it's not about things that happened twenty years ago, it's about the future."
And, Piper says, "I love yard signs." He's excited, he says, about knocking on doors, handing out flyers, "about doing the things that need to be done to get someone elected."
D'Amore was introduced to the would-be governor by Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a former U.S. senator who was elected governor of Connecticut in 1990. He was, D'Amore says, "the first governor elected in modern times as an independent." And the next, D'Amore believes, will be Potts.
D'Amore has a history of helping independent candidates, including former pro wrestler turned Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who challenged Ross Perot for the 1996 Reform Party nomination for president. Potts had paid D'Amore about $32,000 for work as of March 31.
D'Amore says he despises the "happy talk" of party-driven candidates who say whatever they need to get elected. They treat voters like mushrooms, he says, "by keeping them in the dark and feeding them you-know-what."
It's not that hard for elected officials to come up with plausible solutions to serious problems, D'Amore says. The trouble arises, he says, when they consider the political consequences. "And suddenly the problem becomes insoluble, because they can't take the political risk."
"Maybe," D'Amore says, "we ought to just make the decision that the thing makes the most sense, and damn the politics.
And if that sounds idealistic, good. Because that's how it ought to work."
Back at the Shad Planking, the K and K teams leap into action. (Potts makes less of a splash, jovially greeting supporters at his tent.)
As Kaine makes his way through the crowd, a man in dark sunglasses hovers at his shoulder, thrusting a silver digital recorder forward into the candidate's conversations. This is Jeff Kraus, the campaign's deputy communications director. "Whenever he chats with reporters I record it," Kraus explains, for evidence in case of misquotes. The 6-foot-4 guy with the video camera is another staffer, John Rohrbach, who's recording the whole thing for the Kaine Web site.
In Kaine's outer circle, Kilgore's press secretary, Murtaugh, and Kaine's communications director, Elleithee, stand side by side, chatting about schedules somewhat stiffly. You might not expect the people who spend their days trading barbs to be on speaking terms. But members of the opposing press corps profess to be friends.
"I have a friendly personal rivalry with Tim Murtaugh," Elleithee says earlier. "This is our third campaign going against each other. And we're one and one right now." He lost in the 2000 Robb-Allen face-off for Senate, and won Warner vs. Earley in 2001. "So this is it, this is the rubber match."
After Elleithee steps away, Murtaugh confides the dirt: Word is, the Kaine folks got young Dems from New York, New Jersey, even Canada to place signs for him. "A good portion of the volunteers can't even vote for him!" Murtaugh says in outrage.
Pshaw, says the Kaine team. The out-of-state license plates signified many Virginia college students, they say, not imported help. They contend they've trumped Kilgore with the sheer number of signs placed (they brought 30,000 signs to Wakefield, they say, but didn't know how many were stuck in the ground), and they had a few other tricks up their sleeves.
"Did you see our plane?" says a delighted Delacey Skinner, Kaine's press secretary. Buzzing overhead is a small green-and-yellow airplane towing a banner that reads "Jerry Real leaders don't duck debates."
The "duck" theme is brand new, launched just that day with a Web site, a series of Burma Shave signs along Route 460 and even a costumed duck mingling with the planking crowd. Skinner rushes off to make sure more media see the plane.
Murtaugh, still orbiting Kaine's entourage, fires back. He hands reporters copies of a sarcastically toned letter regarding the Kaine campaign's "desperate requests for debates." And, Murtaugh points out, more people are sporting Kilgore lapel stickers than Kaine stickers. "Lapel sticker is a vote," he says.
A crowd assembles, trading shouts of "Tim! Tim!" and "Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" as the politicians prepare to speak. There in the press of people stand counterparts Hutcheson and Henry, only five feet apart.
Hutcheson smiles when Kilgore gets in a few choice jabs. Henry's mouth is set. They trade expressions later in the speechifying, when Kaine takes shots at Kilgore.
After the barbs have been thrown, the candidates descend. Kaine grabs a beer. Their work is done but that of their handlers goes on. The cell phones never cease vibrating. The volleys from the Other Side never halt. That Kaine plane keeps flying round and round. And it's April. Six months to go. S
Letters to the editor may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org