By James Oliphant
FRONT ROYAL, Va. (Reuters) - Ralph and Mike Waller are such ardent backers of President Donald Trump that they help stage a counter-protest every Wednesday in front of their Front Royal, Virginia, pawn shop, sparring with anti-Trump demonstrators who gather across the street.
But ask them about Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor in next Tuesday's election, and they show little enthusiasm.
“I would like somebody who’s more closely aligned with Trump,” Ralph Waller, who is Mike Waller's uncle, said from the shop floor, racks of pawned rifles behind him.
Gillespie is, in fact, nothing like Trump, a real estate magnate who had never before held political office, although both are members of the same party. Gillespie is a Washington lobbyist who worked in President George W. Bush's White House, the kind of establishment mainstay Trump bashed on the campaign trail.
Moreover, Gillespie has largely kept his distance from Trump, rarely mentioning him by name and notably not asking for Trump’s help in a tight race.
But Gillespie still needs voters like the Wallers. Trump, who lost Virginia last year by 5 points to Democrat Hillary Clinton, did best in rural areas such as the counties along Virginia’s mountainous spine, less so in urban areas.
That tension has Gillespie looking to thread the thinnest of needles, trying to appeal to voters turned off by Trump while retaining enough of Trump’s passionate base to secure victory.
Should he win, Gillespie might provide a blueprint for other Republican candidates unsure how to campaign in an era when the president is popular with fewer than 40 percent of Americans.
“If he manages to do this, he’s shown how you engage Trump voters while literally avoiding Donald Trump,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
The Virginia governor’s race, one of only two in the country this year, is being watched nationally by political observers looking for clues about next year’s midterm elections, in which Democrats are seeking to seize one or both houses of Congress.
Gillespie has been courting Trump voters by focusing on what he says is the threat posed by illegal immigrants, a longtime Trump campaign theme. He has criticized "sanctuary cities" and run ads warning of the street gang MS-13, which is largely composed of members from Central America.
He has also called for preserving Confederate monuments following the clashes between white supremacists and protesters in August in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Once trailing significantly behind Democrat Ralph Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, Gillespie has risen in the polls since the ads began running regularly. Kidd credits the spots for making the race competitive.
Sanctuary cities, Gillespie told Reuters in an interview, are "not going to make us safer.”
While Virginia has no sanctuary cities, which often do not use municipal funds or resources to enforce federal immigration laws, the issue arose earlier this year when a measure by the state's legislature to prohibit them was vetoed by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.
But some argue Gillespie is being too cautious. Corey Stewart, who ran against Gillespie in the gubernatorial primary and garnered support from Trump’s base, said Gillespie erred in not asking the president to campaign for him and in not doing more to harness the energy Trump has stirred.
“He's put the president at a distance, and he has offended a lot of the president's supporters,” Stewart said. “And it could cost him the election.”
Trump has tweeted his support for Gillespie, but that is as far as it has gone.
Gillespie said he appreciated Trump’s endorsement but declined to say whether he would ask for more, even parroting Trump's own words in doing so.
"Just like the president doesn’t disclose his military strategy, we don’t disclose our campaign strategy," he said.
At a recent house party in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, Gillespie mixed with a prosperous group of Republicans who snacked on a catered spread and chatted about private schools.
He spoke to them about traditional Republican priorities such as economic growth and education reform - and never once mentioned Trump, while referring to other politicians who support him such as Vice President Mike Pence and George W. Bush.
“That's smart,” said Chris Andreas, a Great Falls, Virginia, resident who attended the event and said he believed Trump had hurt the Republican party.
In 2016, Trump fared significantly worse in Fairfax County than Republican nominee Mitt Romney did four years earlier. There are more voters to be gained there than anywhere else in the state.
The strategy's downside is that while Democrats hold a large advantage in Northern Virginia, they are losing ground in rural areas.
In Warren County, where Front Royal is located, Trump gained 2,000 votes more than Romney largely by attracting wayward Democrats, said Stephen Kurtz, a former chair of the county Republican Party. The pattern, he said, repeated across other counties in rural Virginia.
Kurtz said he had heard grumbling over Gillespie’s Washington background and worries some voters energized by Trump may stay home.
“It is a hard sell, believe me,” Kurtz said.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)