As a former Republican National Committee chairman and governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore entered the presidential race in January 2007 with a strong résumé and a desire to represent the GOP's conservative wing. But lackluster fundraising and an inability to break through a crowded field led Gilmore to drop his presidential bid and enter the race to replace retiring Virginia Sen. John Warner (R).
In the second interview of an ongoing series with former presidential candidates, Gilmore sat down with NationalJournal.com's Mary Gilbert on Feb. 27 to discuss life on the campaign trail, his strategy for winning the Virginia Senate race and why he supports John McCain for president. Edited excerpts follow. For previous Exit Interviews, click here.
Q: What was the deciding factor in launching your presidential bid?
Gilmore: I felt there was a need in the race for a mainstream, Reagan-type conservative: someone who had a long track record of conservative principles, fiscal responsibility -- someone who had actually been a governor, who understood something about foreign policy and could bring to the race a lot of experience and mainstream conservative thought.
Q: There were several candidates in the primary race this year vying for the title of true conservative. Do you think that the number of competitors hampered your ability to stand out?
Gilmore: No, I thought that I was different from the other candidates in the race while I was in and thought that I still represented a strata of the American electorate that wanted representation. So it really wasn't that. It was that there had not been time prior to the entry into the race to establish the financial network necessary to run a race all the way. But I felt very comfortable on the stage. I liked the other candidates, and I enjoyed the opportunity to participate.
Q: Was there one issue in particular that you wanted to draw attention to with your candidacy?
Gilmore: I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the American people pay too much in taxes. We can get in a situation where heavy, heavy government spending at the federal level could drive so much taxation that people just can't get ahead anymore. And philosophically, we would like to see people more independent out there. We would like to see them more in control of their own lives and not worrying so much about their future. And the best way to do that is to give them a real opportunity to have economic and financial independence.
You can't do that when most of the excess capital people make is being taxed away. And the only reason that you have high taxes is because we have too much government spending. We devote a lot of time to thinking about the revenue side of the equation, both in the states and in the national government, when that's really the wrong side of the equation. Until we begin to really focus on the heavy spending and put ourselves in the position to set some priorities that match up with our revenue stream, we're never going to be in a position to deliver real financial independence to the people of this country.
Q: Do you think that you succeeded in getting the other Republican candidates to focus on taxes and government spending?
Gilmore: No, I think I was a voice for those issues myself. But the fact is that it would have required a sustained effort over a long period of time to influence the race in that way. And I was just not able to do that. But I did believe that I could influence those issues in the United States Senate race. And so I chose to withdraw from the presidential race and enter the United States Senate race.
Q: What are some of your fondest memories from the campaign trail?
Gilmore: My very fondest memory was appearing at the Reagan library for the very first presidential debate. It was a great thrill. It was a wonderful opportunity to stand with the other candidates in a very historic setting and to be able to participate at that high level of American public policy. And I enjoyed that thoroughly.
Q: What lessons do you think that you learned from running for president that you can take forward into your Senate bid?
Gilmore: I think to really try to create a vision of what the country should be and to particularly be thoughtful about what policies we can follow to help the American people. It's very clear that we have been in a long, long downward pattern of increasing government size, increasing government activities, increasing government programs, and turning more and more responsibility for day-in-and-day-out life over to government at all levels, and especially the federal government. And as you do that, you reduce the individual citizen's opportunity to participate in the life of the nation. You create such a demand for revenue that you really begin to dominate the pocketbooks around the kitchen table. And so then when you get a downturn, people feel it dramatically, like now.
And I think that we've got to really focus on a lot of these economic issues. We've got to... be concerned about the high prices of oil. We have to find some way to create more jobs in this country for people, so they can have hope and aspirations as they come out of school. We've got to create a society that is empowered to be more independent. It isn't enough to just say to citizens: "We're just going to leave you on your own." That's not conservative thought. It's, rather, enabling people within a culture of freedom to be able to go forward and create something for themselves and for their neighbors and for their country. And that's what I hope to talk about in the Senate race.
Q: You have stated that your main strategy against your presumptive opponent, Mark Warner, would be to link him to Hillary Rodham Clinton. But do you think Clinton will still be the Democratic presidential nominee?
Gilmore: I can't predict what the Democrats will do about that, but I don't think that it really matters. Right now what is really going on between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is more a debate of styles. In terms of substance, they're very similar in their approach and they're very Democratic Party in their approach. The promises that each of them has made have been prodigious in the amount of money that they're going to be taking from the individual citizens for taxes to fund all of their programs. Both of them want to nationalize health care. Both have said that they want universal health care, which is a code word for really cutting the private sector out.
And Mark Warner, of course, has said that he wants universal health care. And I think that you'll find that high taxation is certainly in line with what Mark Warner's track record and goals would be. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton have said that they want to not continue the Bush tax cuts for people. Mark Warner has said that he would not be in favor of the Bush tax cuts. So he's already said that he wants to increase taxes, and that's very much in line with the approach that Clinton and Obama would take.
So we don't think it matters whether it's Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. We think that it is time for a change, and we think that these candidates -- none of them really represents change. They represent more of the same, which is increased government, increased spending and more taxation.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about Virginia becoming a purple state, and voter turnout on Super Tuesday was higher on the Democratic side than on the Republican side. What do you think that portends for the race in November?
Gilmore: I don't know that the primary turnout numbers matter at this point. I think that what we were seeing there was a hot debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, with the two trying desperately to differentiate [themselves] and not having very much luck. People were out there voting because they either love the Clintons or they love the "newness" message that Barack Obama was creating. Meanwhile, by the time of the Virginia primary, it was pretty certain that John McCain was the winner.
So I think there was a reason why there was greater turnout in the Democrats than in the Republicans. But I would point this out: Virginia has not voted for a Democratic candidate for president since 1964, and that was an anomaly because of the Kennedy assassination. So Virginia does not tend to want to vote for these kinds of Democratic policies at the national level.
And I'm certain that John McCain will carry Virginia. He's a good military man. I'm an Army veteran myself. And we believe that we're more in tune with the military families and people who work in the military community in this state than Mark Warner would be, or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I feel very comfortable that John McCain will carry Virginia, and there will be a majority of Republican votes on Election Day, and I have confidence that they will go downticket and vote for the Republican candidate for the Senate. I think people in Virginia really know what's at stake in this election.
Q: In one of the early Republican debates, you referred to three of the GOP front-runners as "Rudy McRomney" and implied that none of them was a true conservative. But you did endorse John McCain ahead of the Virginia primary. Are you convinced that John McCain is a true conservative?
Gilmore: I'm convinced that John McCain is a strong candidate for the state of Virginia. I think that I was the true conservative in the race and said so. But there are different forms of conservatism, and I'm not suggesting that others in the race weren't conservative.... But John McCain has prevailed in this. I believe he will carry Virginia. I think he's a strong candidate for Virginia. I want him to have momentum. I want him to win, and I'm going to try to help him.
Q: McCain has had trouble getting the right-wing conservative base to rally around him. Do you think that he'll be able to do that before the general election?
Gilmore: I certainly do. I'm one of those conservatives. I was a delegate for Ronald Reagan to the Kansas City convention in 1976. I've been around conservative politics all my life. And I certainly intend to be a strong advocate in the conservative community for Senator McCain. He doesn't agree with everybody on every subject or even with me. I think there are some things he should've done differently. But that's all right.
When the public begins to focus on the direction that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama want to take the country, they will see that it's really more of the same that they have always offered, which is more government programs, greater government, higher costs, more taxation and less independence for people. That's been their pattern for decades and decades. They're not offering change. They're just simply saying: "Re-elect us and let us go back to doing the same thing again." That's not change.
Q: Last summer you wrote a letter to President Bush calling for a change in the administration's Iraq policy. You wrote that the current course of the war there was distracting from or detrimental to America's goals in the region. Do you still feel that way today?
Gilmore: I would answer in two ways. First of all, I'm happy that I wrote the letter. I think that what I was suggesting was that there needed to be a policy framework that focused on America's national interests, and that by playing the role of police officer in the nation of Iraq, we were not at an advantage in the battle that was going on.
So my suggestion was that we behave like a great power and put ourselves in a position where we focus on American national interests, and I defined what I thought they were. Now, since that time the president has put forward a surge. It has had a greater success than, I think, most people anticipated. I congratulate him for that and hope that that is going to be a sustainable improvement.
Q: With so many of our combat brigades in Iraq and with deployments being as long as they are, do you think that the military is stretched too thin?
Gilmore: Yes, there's no report to the contrary. Everybody believes that it's stretched too far. And the use of the National Guard is pretty extraordinary. That didn't use to be the case. When I was the governor of Virginia, I commanded the National Guard. And I remember going and bidding goodbye to the troops as they were on their way to Bosnia in order to do peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. It was thought to be peace-time work, but it was also thought to be a rather extraordinary use of military forces.
With this shooting combat, we've certainly had a great deal more stress on the National Guard and on the regular military. I do believe that we have to focus on American power and on making sure that we have appropriate forces available to protect the interests of the United States. But I do believe that we're probably going to have to add to the size of the military if we're going to continue to conduct ground operations in the world.