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Maverick? Spoiler? Who Is Russ Potts?

The morning Sen. Russ Potts (R-Winchester) announced he was running for governor as an independent candidate, the two major party campaigns kicked into spin mode.

Jerry Kilgore, the presumed Republican nominee, said Potts' candidacy would be a setback for his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine.

"The high tax/big government spending lobby [now] has two liberal candidates to choose from in the race for Governor," Kilgore said.

Kaine, on the other hand, said the announcement was good news for his campaign because it was evidence Virginia's Republican Party is split between the conservative anti-tax wing and the moderate Republicans who believe taxes are necessary to fix the problems facing the state.

It remains to be seen which will prove true about Potts' bid to become governor on Nov. 8, but one thing is certain Ñ Potts plans to stir things up over the next seven months.

"The most dangerous candidate is the one who isn't afraid to lose," said Potts, a sports promoter who has served in the senate for 14 years. "Believe me, I'm not afraid to lose."

A MODERATE REPUBLICAN, Potts was one of 34 GOP lawmakers who last year broke with their party and voted in favor of a $1.6 billion tax increase to fund education, public safety and human services.

As chairman of the Senate's Education and Health Committee, he has blocked conservative legislation approved by the House of Delegates Ñ most notably bills that would have further restricted abortion rights.

Potts knows that by supporting taxes and derailing right wing legislation, he would have little chance in a primary contest for the Republican nomination against Kilgore.

Instead, he is running as an "independent Republican" and is the only candidate in the race who has suggested higher taxes may be needed to fix Virginia's transportation and education troubles.

He criticized both Kaine and Kilgore for advocating property tax cuts, saying the Republican and Democratic candidates' plans would require a drastic reduction in government services.

"I've seen this whole no-tax, no-roads, no-schools, no-hope vision play out," he said. "They're adamantly opposed to any investment in Virginia."

Should Potts be elected governor, one of his top priorities would be to overhaul the state's tax code, which has not been comprehensively revised since 1938. By ensuring all Virginians are paying their fair share, he said, revenue could be generated for long-term transportation and education solutions.

He also said that he, unlike Kaine or Kilgore, is open to increasing the gas tax, which has remained at 17.5 cents per gallon for nearly two decades.

"I hate taxes, but I love Virginia more," he said.

SINCE POTTS announced his candidacy in late February, he has been formally rebuked by the state's GOP governing committee and at least eight local Republican committees, including the Winchester City Republican Committee Ñ his hometown organization Ñ and the Fairfax County Republican Committee.

When Potts decided not to run against Kilgore in the June 14 primary, he turned his back on the Republican Party, said Eric Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.

"The Party hasn't left him, he left the Party," Lundberg said. "If you're not going to check our box, you're not on our team."

Potts shrugged off the increasing number of Republican committee resolutions denouncing his campaign and calling for his resignation, saying it is merely the opinion of a few hundred ultra-conservative GOP activists.

"I'll get more votes than that in one precinct," he said. "I don't think they represent the views of most Virginians."

A typical gubernatorial primary in Virginia attracts around 155,000 voters in a state of 7.7 million, he said.

IN ORDER for Potts' name to be included on the ballot, he will have to submit to the State Board of Elections petitions signed by 10,000 registered voters, with at least 400 signatures from each of the state's 11 congressional districts. As of last week, his campaign had collected roughly 5,000 signatures. The deadline is June 14.

One of Potts' biggest challenges over the next few months may be campaign finance. So far, he has brought in $63,000 in campaign contributions. Both Kaine and Kilgore have raised more than $5.3 million each, according to campaign finance records.

Both Kaine and Kilgore have essentially been running for their parties' nomination for more than three years. Potts' campaign started on Feb. 25.

But while Potts may the underdog in a three-man race to become governor, the other campaigns are taking his candidacy seriously.

"One would be a fool to underestimate Russ Potts," said Gov. Mark Warner (D) on the day Potts announced his campaign.