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The Bennington Banner - Gov. Race Heats up with 3 Weeks Left

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Location: Bennington, VT

The Bennington Banner - Gov. Race Heats up with 3 Weeks Left

Neal P. Goswami

Article Launched: 10/17/2008 03:03:36 AM EDT
With less than three weeks until election day, Vermont's three gubernatorial candidates are shaping their messages — and sharpening their attacks.

The spotlight is likely to be directed on economic woes, which have dominated the presidential election, and have also taken hold of the governor's race.

With time running out, three-term incumbent Republican Gov. James Douglas and his challengers — Democratic Speaker of the House Gaye Symington and Independent Anthony Pollina — are hitching their campaigns to their economic agendas and hoping their respective plans pull them to victory.

"This is not the elephant in the room; this is the room. There is nothing else to talk about," said University of Vermont political science Professor Garrison Nelson.

The campaigns, by and large, agree.

"There's only one issue in this election for Vermonters and that's the economy. Every other issue on the minds of Vermonters relates to the economy," said Douglas campaign manager Dennise Casey. "There are other issues that still weigh on Vermonters, but it all ties back to the economy."

The Douglas campaign has a simple, tested approach to running on economic issues: Portray Symington and Pollina as inexperienced tax-raisers who are risky in a time of economic uncertainty, and present Douglas to be the "voice of reason for a strong Vermont economy."

Casey said both Symington and Pollina are failing to connect with voters on economic issues. Douglas, meanwhile, will be spending the next several weeks pitching his Economic Growth Plan, highlighted by a tax credits for research-and-developmentventures designed to create new jobs, she said.

"The governor has some serious concerns with Speaker Symington's and Anthony Pollina's economic ideas, because frankly, they are unrealistic," Casey said.

Symington and Pollina have messages, however, that are designed to undercut the image depicted by Douglas.

"Our message hasn't changed," said Symington spokesman Michael Carrese. "Our message in this entire campaign is that the governor has failed to create jobs and keep our economy growing."

Symington will continue to hammer away at Douglas' record, Carrese said, because Symington believes the record is lacking. Symington's plan focuses on harnessing alternative energy sources to create economic growth and jobs.

"We've been talking a great deal about energy, because there's a complete lack of an energy plan, and this has been Gov. Douglas' history," he said. "Our economy is terrible. Jim Douglas has handled things worse here than his counterparts in New England."

"After six years, people are looking around and saying, 'Hey, he's a good talker and he's good at public relations, but he hasn't accomplished anything,'" Carrese said. "It doesn't matter what he's saying now; it's about results."

Pollina, to a large extent, also plans to focus on what he perceives to be Douglas' failures.

"Jim Douglas talks about, 'we're going to continue moving towards prosperity.' Where has he been? We are not moving towards prosperity," Pollina said in an interview Wednesday. "Under his steady hand we've gone backwards."

Pollina said his economic plan will focus on public works projects that puts Vermonters to work and helps the state maintain an aging infrastructure.

"I think of myself of being in the vein of FDR and Jim Douglas as being in the vein of George Bush and John McCain," he said. "The economists will tell you that the best thing to do is put people to work."

Pollina said he believes Vermonters already identify with him on the issues after receiving major endorsements from the Vermont State Employees Union, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association and the Vermont chapter of the AFL-CIO. His main focus will be to prove to Vermonters that he can win.

"The message is that we can win," Pollina said. "Being not a Democrat or Republican and being in a three-way race, there are a lot of people who support where I'm at on the issues, and frankly, really want to vote for me and support me but feel somewhat constrained in doing that."

All three campaigns said they are planning to use television and radio to deliver their messages in the campaign's final weeks. In addition, direct mail flyers will be sent out by the campaigns and volunteers will bring other campaign literature door-to-door in the final days.

Polling, though sparse, has also impacted the campaign. A September poll showed Douglas with 48 percent of the vote, Symington with 33 percent and Pollina with just 7 percent. A poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, however, released last week, shuffled the race. Douglas received 45 percent support, followed by Pollina with 25 percent and Symington with 20 percent.

Symington's campaign immediately dismissed the poll as not credible, and has maintained that stance. The Douglas campaign claims its internal polling numbers show Douglas to have more support than the public polls indicate.

"We don't discuss our internal polls and we never have, but ... external polls always have him underperforming where we know him to be," Casey said. "Our information indicates that the governor will be comfortably over 50 percent."

For Pollina, the Rasmussen poll only verified what he said he was feeling as he met with voters. He said the recent poll shows his momentum, and declining support for both Douglas and Symington.

"When they asked who you would vote for, we got more. I'm sticking with that," he said. "That kind of feels like more what I sense on the street."

Nelson said it is not surprising to see Pollina advancing in the polls. Vermonters know Pollina, who has run for both governor and lieutenant governor in the past, he said.

"I thought it was just a matter of time that once people thought he was electable they would start moving in his direction. Is it enough to win the election? No, but Jim Douglas will not escape the Legislature."

Douglas' poll results are surprising, however, Nelson said, given Douglas' name recognition and the candidates he is facing. Pollina has run several statewide races and has failed to win, Nelson said, but has also antagonized Democrats by running as a third-party candidate in races Democrats believed they could win one-on-one. Symington, meanwhile, is in her first statewide contest.

"I hadn't expected this. I figured Jim Douglas, who is now in his fifth statewide contest, would sew this up early," Nelson said.

But Douglas is up against several hurdles, including an "Obama juggernaut," that almost certainly will send the election to the Legislature, according to Nelson. The Legislature votes by secret ballot to decide the election when no candidate receives a majority.

"(Democratic presidential candidate Sen.) Barack Obama is going to win Vermont by at least 30 points. It is going to be embarrassing to the Republican Party how badly John McCain is going to lose Vermont," he said. "Jim Douglas will have to perform 15 points better than John McCain. That's a tall order for anybody. The Republican brand has become so tarnished."

Additionally, the fourth election for a sitting governor has historically proven to be the toughest, Nelson said. Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin did not even try for a fourth term, and former Gov. Howard Dean, although victorious, dropped 15 points during his fourth election. Former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling also struggled.

If Symington and Pollina receive 60 percent of the vote combined, Douglas should begin to worry about who the Legislature will choose, Nelson said.

"They're going to say, 'Jim, there's no mandate here for your policies,'" he said.

The Douglas campaign maintains that it is not worried about securing 50 percent of the vote and reaching voters who are inclined to vote for Barack Obama.

"Vermonters are fiercely independent. They support candidates, by and large, by their personal support of that individual, not the party affiliation," Casey said. "We know that there are going to be a lot of Obama-Douglas supporters, just as there have always been a lot of Douglas-Bernie (Sanders) supporters."

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