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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Potts support slumps to 1 percent; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — The gubernatorial race between Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore remains neck and neck, but a new poll by Rasmussen Research has independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. all but out of the race.

Kilgore, a Republican and former Virginia attorney general, leads the poll with 46 percent, compared to 44 percent for Kaine, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor.

Support for Potts, however, has fallen away to almost nothing at 1 percent. The Winchester native and Republican state senator had been polling at 5 percent in a Sept. 28 Rasmussen survey.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen said the drop was directly related to his poll’s efforts to further distill its pool of 500 “likely” voters.

“After we ask the initial question, we do a little bit more follow-up. ‘Are you certain you’re going to vote for that candidate? Could you change your mind?’” he said.

“That gives us a sense of maybe one candidate or the other has stronger core support and will do better in a low turnout or a high turnout,” he said.

Kaine and Kilgore’s numbers hardly moved when put through additional scrutiny, he said. The two were tied at 45 in the last Rasmussen survey.

But “when it comes to Russ Potts — this is not unusual for third party candidates — we find that a lot people say that they’ll vote for him, but then when you do any kind of a follow-up they’ll actually fall away to one of the major party candidates or indicate that they might not vote,” he said.

Calls to the Potts campaign for comment weren’t returned on Wednesday, but officials did issue a press release touting his “virtual debate” with Kaine and Kilgore, produced by WTVR-TV in Richmond.

The station kept Potts isolated from Sunday’s debate, and asked him the same questions posed to Kaine and Kilgore. It will run at 11 p.m. starting next week over a series of seven nights.

Potts needs to give serious consideration to packing it in, said Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at George Mason University.

“I think that time is about now, or that happened even earlier than now,” he said. “There’s no chance. It’s clear that the voters are going to support one or the other of the major party candidates.”

Polling at 1 percent, Potts isn’t a first choice anymore, but a “a protest vote for a very small portion of the electorate that are dissatisfied with the major party choices,” Rozell said.

Potts’ “campaign never caught traction,” he said. “There’s a real question now whether its time to step aside and endorse one of the [other] two candidates.”

Kilgore’s new push on the death penalty — and Kaine’s inevitable response — has raised the level of the campaign, and Potts can’t keep up, Rozell said.

Potts is “relegated to a sideshow at best” at this point, he said.

A successful third-party or no-party run, like Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, takes money coupled with serious dissatisfaction with the GOP and Democratic choices.

“People just weren’t dissatisfied with the two candidates,” Rozell said. People weren’t enthused, he added, but they weren’t upset enough to abandon the party, even if Kaine and Kilgore aren’t “George Allen or Mark Warner.”

But even with ample funding and dissatisfied voters, “I think it would have been a very long-shot campaign,” Rozell said. “It’s very hard to overcome the entrenched two-party system.”

Fundraising has simply been the Achilles’ heel of the Potts campaign, said Robert Holsworth, dean of the Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“In some ways he’s the most distinctive personality and has the most distinctive set of issues in the race,” he said. “But [Potts] doesn’t have the means of conveying either to the Virginia public right now, and that’s what’s harming him.”

With more money, Holsworth said, Potts could have been a factor.

“If he had had money to advertise and money to be on television and statewide name recognition, he’d be very formidable,” he said. “He’s fabulous on the stump, he’s compelling when he speaks about a lot of issues.”

“He just showed that if you don’t begin with a little bit of celebrity and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s very difficult for an independent candidate to catch hold,” Holsworth said.

Is it time for Potts to quit?

“I think that’s a personal choice that he has to make, based on the poll numbers, his feelings about the race and his capacity to raise money,” Holsworth said.

Then again, it may not be time to quit, depending on Potts’ future intentions, according to Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians.

Candidates should fold up shop “when you’re burning your own money,” he said. “As long as you’re burning other people’s money, you’re accomplishing something. The money is there, you might as well spend it.”

Winning in 2005 is out of the question, but if Potts is looking toward 2009, it may pay to hang in, Brians said.

“I don’t know if Potts is going to have very many fans left in the Republican Party after this,” he said. “But our governors can’t run again, so if Kilgore were to win, it might position Potts for next time.”

Above all, though, the Winchester senator must maintain his “statesman” credentials, according to Brians.

“This is the race for the next campaign at this point,” he said.

Election Day is Nov. 8.