Although the 2000 presidential election is more than a year away, the race came closer to Virginia yesterday when Republican frontrunner George W. Bush named Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and U.S. Rep. Tom Bliley (R-7th) as co-chairmen of his campaign in the state.
As state co-chairs, Gilmore and Bliley primarily will be responsible "for organizing the campaign within the state," Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
Analysts and campaign staff said the selection of Gilmore and Bliley is not a surprise.
"We [the Bush campaign] obviously look for people in the state who are supportive of Governor Bush and who will put together a strong statewide organization," Tucker said.
The Virginia Republican primary is earlier for the 2000 presidential election cycle than it has been in previous years. Scheduled for Feb. 29, it gives state voters more clout in the nomination process, she said.
The Republican nominee may not be obvious until March -- potentially making the Virginia primary particularly influential, she added.
"We have assurance Governor Bush will actively campaign in Virginia," said Quintin Kendall, executive director of the Bush for President Campaign in Virginia.
Bush already has visited Virginia several times this year, and is scheduled to visit Norfolk and McLean Virginia tomorrow for fundraising events.
Political analysts said a major reason for Bush's visits to the state is the many contributors he finds.
"This state is such a good source of dollars for Bush; Virginians have been opening their pockets to him," said Robert Holsworth, political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kendall said he foresees that Bush's campaign efforts will start in earnest after Virginia's Nov. 2 general elections and throughout the primaries. Many political figures in Virginia now are focusing their attention on gaining a Republican majority in the General Assembly, not on the presidential race, he said.
But a majority of Republican leaders in the state already have pledged their support for Bush, he added.
"Sixty percent of the Republican chairmen from counties and cities around the state have already signed on with the Bush campaign," Kendall said.
If Bush continues to lead the Republican nomination contest as he does now, however, his campaigning efforts in Virginia could decrease, Holsworth said.
"If Gilmore and Bliley have to work very hard [as state co-chairs], then Bush is in great trouble nationally," said Larry J. Sabato, government and foreign affairs professor. "Virginia is nearly automatic for the Republicans."
Sabato said one or more congressmen, senior state legislators and Mark Warner, the Democratic frontrunner for the 2001 gubernatorial race, could be named as campaign chairs for the Democratic candidates.
Democrats usually do not pay much attention to Virginia during presidential races, however, since the state is traditionally a Republican stronghold, he said.