Virginia Republican for President

Virginia Republican for PresidentJim Gilmore wants to fill the slot George Allen’s defeat left open.

By Jonathan Martin National Review Online

Not a few conservatives take a look at the current presidential field and ask, “Is that it?” Surely, they say, there is a candidate in the wings sans the personal or ideological baggage that each of the prospective hopefuls seems to carry.

Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor and chairman of the Republican National Committee, is one of these not-fully-satisfied Republicans.

“There is a need for a conservative who’s electable,” Gilmore argues emphatically in a conversation with National Review Online at his Georgetown law office.

And Gilmore has somebody in mind who could fit that bill.

Jim Gilmore.

“I’m considering a national candidacy,” he says bluntly.

He’s been to Iowa four times, South Carolina twice in just the last month, and was in California in August to speak to their state party’s convention. He’s also reached out to longtime GOP activists in some of these key states, sounding them out about a potential White House bid.

To Gilmore, nobody else in the presidential mix has his credentials: Army intelligence officer, local prosecutor, state attorney general, governor, national party leader, and chairman of a terrorism and homeland-security commission that predated 9/11.

And, to the point, Gilmore notes that, “as governor, I governed as a conservative.” While the other top candidates in the field have “to move” to the Right to get right with the base, he’s already there.

Elected in 1997 on a promise to do away with the commonwealth’s despised personal-property tax on vehicles, Gilmore eliminated 70 percent of the levy in his single term before tangling with moderate Republicans in the legislature who wanted the freeze the reduction. To Gilmore, what happened with the moderate Republicans in Richmond was replicated on Capitol Hill over the past few years.

“If you spend a lot of money, you’ll buy the people’s favor,” he said. “But it doesn’t work in the long run.” What’s more, such big spending only “increases pressure for higher taxes.”

Since leaving politics in 2002, Gilmore has continued his work on homeland-security and intelligence matters, both in his Washington-based law practice and with a 501 (c) 3 policy organization . He also has developed national contacts by serving on a number of corporate boards.

Gilmore wouldn’t set a timetable for when he would make a decision about a presidential bid, but that he is even talking about such a possibility is a testament to how fast things can change in politics.

“Who would have thought that at the end of 2006 the only Virginian left considering a potential run for president would be Jim Gilmore,” says Robert Holsworth, a dean at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime observer of Virginia politics.

Gilmore, Holsworth acknowledges, “has a number of positives,” including his “anti-tax message” and “legitimate antiterrorism, homeland-security credentials.”

But there are “very many question marks” about a national bid, not the least of which is money. “Can he gain name recognition quickly enough to obtain adequate funding?” Holsworth asks. What’s more, Gilmore’s tenure at the RNC was a rocky one, in part because he clashed with some in the Bush administration and in part because he was not able to get a Republican successor elected in Virginia.

Some Virginia Republicans “blame him for enabling Mark Warner to win reelection in 2001 as a fiscally responsible businessperson,” Holsworth notes.

This last matter is perhaps why Gilmore is keeping two other less ambitious options open. For one, he’s keeping a close eye on Virginia’s senior senator, Republican John Warner. Warner, who turns 80 in February, is up for reelection in 2008 and has not decided on whether he’ll seek a sixth term. Gilmore, a serious man interested in serious matters, said “it would be a blast to talk policy all day in the Senate.”

But, under Virginia’s one-term-and-you’re done system, there will also be an open gubernatorial race in 2009. And Gilmore is quick to note that all of his experience, going back to his days as a county prosecutor, was in the executive and that he “loved being governor.”

What’s more, a second run at chief executive would offer three very attractive opportunities for Gilmore. First, he wants to prove that northern Virginia has not permanently become Democratic terrain. As he is quick to remind, Gilmore was the last Republican to carry the region in a contested statewide campaign. Asked if the area has changed and become out of reach for the GOP in the decade since his run, Gilmore purposefully leans across the table and draws out a long, “NO.”

Second, he’d be able to secure his legacy (and what largely fueled his success in the Washington suburbs) by doing away entirely with the car tax.

Third, and perhaps most appealing to a pol with a long memory like Gilmore, another run at the governor’s mansion would offer him a shot to take on the man who ran against his record and denied him that legacy.

“I’d love to run against Mark Warner,” Gilmore admits with the slightest of grins.

— Jonathan Martin is NRO’s national political reporter.