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WAKEFIELD--The way to Wakefield was unmistakable.
No one could miss the thousands of signs that jostled for position along State Route 460, through downtown Wakefield and right up to the field in which the Wakefield Ruritan Club hosts Virginia's annual Shad Planking.
Most of the signs were for the two main gubernatorial candidates--Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine. Independent gubernatorial candidate Russ Potts managed to wedge a few in, and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Chap Peterson found space for signs that perkily proclaimed, "Chap!"
The signs reflected the attention paid to the candidates inside the field where beer trucks lined an avenue of dirt and trees, and many of the 2,500 estimated attendees bore more than one campaign sticker for one of the various candidates. One man wore a suit jacket covered in Kaine stickers.
Only Kilgore and Kaine were invited to speak to the crowd, and even that was a departure from tradition. The Shad Planking, while a political event, usually avoids providing a platform for the candidates of the moment.
But this one wound up providing Kilgore and Kaine a platform from which to snipe at each other.
Kilgore, who won a coin toss and spoke first, joked that Kaine has been anxious to get on a stage with Kilgore. (Kaine is pushing Kilgore for debates.)
"Apparently, he thinks it's going to help his rural votes if he has his picture made with a genuine rural Virginian," Kilgore said.
Kaine got his own digs in, saying he hoped it "isn't the last time that we appear together on a stage in Virginia," and acknowledging the presence of two other Republicans who are running for governor: Potts and George Fitch.
Neither Potts nor Fitch was invited to speak at the event, although both showed up to shake hands and pass out cold drinks.
Fitch, who called the Shad Planking a "sort of country fair plus a political fete," said he had asked the organizers to rectify their oversight in not inviting him, as he is a candidate for the Republican nomination just like Kilgore. But when they said the slate was set long ago, he didn't push it.
Fitch said he will continue to push Kilgore for debates, because by ignoring him "you're ignoring the voter," he said.
Fitch had no signs along the roads into Wakefield. "I don't believe in using resources for sign pollution," he said.
Potts said he'd been there since 11 a.m., "working the crowd, shaking every hand."
Not being invited to speak, he said, didn't bother him.
"It isn't as though you're going to get up and give a 20-minute position speech," Potts said.
A meet-and-greet event like the Shad Planking, he added, "plays to my strength.
"I work the crowd well. This is the kind of campaign that I'm most effective at."
The slate of candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as some candidates for House of Delegates and local races, were also left on the sidelines, diligently working the sweaty crowd in 80-degree-plus heat.
The Shad Planking is a longstanding Virginia political tradition in which locals and political insiders from across the state gather in the woods to drink beer and eat shad--a migratory fish--that's been nailed to a board and smoked.
The shad this year actually were from out-of-state, too--shipped in from North Carolina, because there aren't many shad left in Virginia.
Robert Bain, chairman of the Shad Planking, said part of the proceeds from past events went to build a shad ladder in the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, in an attempt to revive its shad population.
Bain also said the sign wars were worse this year than previously. The campaigns brought in signs on an 18-wheeler and a cherry-picker the night before, and the police had to get involved to remove some signs from property such as power lines, he said.
Both the major candidates joked about what was evidently an intense battle for signage position.
"It was like hand-to-hand combat" on the street corners of Wakefield the night before, Kaine said in his speech. "You can't be a real candidate for governor until you get a bunch of signs ripped up on the way to Wakefield."
The sign battles were a theme of the day for the Kilgore campaign, who accused Kaine's campaign of bringing in out-of-state campaign workers to put up the signs. In his speech, Kilgore made a point of "welcoming" Kaine's out-of-town workers.
The Kaine folks scoffed at that, and pushed their own message: that Kilgore is "ducking" Kaine's challenges to debate early and often.
To drive that home, they brought in someone dressed as a duck, and hired a plane to circle overhead, trailing a banner that accused Kilgore of ducking debates.
"I hope he doesn't pass out," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said darkly, referring to the duck. "We're concerned for the duck's welfare."
Kilgore himself called it a desperate tactic.
And he noted he has agreed to the Virginia Bar Association debate in July--in West Virginia--which he called the normal kickoff debate in Virginia gubernatorial campaigns.
"We're just doing it the traditional Virginia way," he said.
To reach CHELYEN DAVIS: 804/782-9362 email@example.com