Virginia governor contenders ready for battle
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After months of shadow boxing, the main Republican contenders to be Virginia's next governor are ready to get serious.

Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, Rep. Rob WittmanRobert (Rob) Joseph WittmanVirginia Port: Gateway to the economic growth Republican lawmakers ask Trump not to delay Pentagon cloud-computing contract Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland MORE (R-Va.), and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE's Virginia campaign chair Corey Stewart will all speak at the Liberty Farm Festival in Virginia on Saturday, where GOP vice presidential nominee Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism Majority of voters say federal officials staying at Trump hotels is a conflict of interest Trump names finalists for national security adviser MORE will be the headliner.

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All three are considered top contenders to be the GOP candidate to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. Virginia limits its governors to one term.

“The Virginia governorship is one of the most powerful in the nation. Many Virginians would rather choose a governor than any other office,” said Tim Phillips, a veteran of Virginia politics and the president of the powerful Koch network group Americans for Prosperity.

“They will be seeing their prospective candidates together for the first time in a major setting,” Phillips added.

Gillespie is an especially strong prospect for what is among the most constitutionally powerful governorships in the nation.

Gillespie is the early favorite to win the state's open primary and is already amassing the resources he'll need for a strong showing in November 2017, in the race to replace incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

Virginia Republicans voted earlier this year to choose their next gubernatorial nominee in a primary, rather than a convention. That process is likely to help wealthier candidates and those with higher name recognition; conventions tend to favor more conservative candidates who appeal to the party’s ideological base.

Gillespie has deep party ties; is being supported by high-profile establishment figures such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; and has a nationwide fundraising network built from being a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and having run for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Gillespie had been all but written off in his 2014 Senate race against Democratic Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerCalifornia Law to rebuild middle class shows need for congressional action Hillicon Valley: FCC approves Nexstar-Tribune merger | Top Democrat seeks answers on security of biometric data | 2020 Democrats take on Chinese IP theft | How Google, Facebook probes are testing century-old antitrust laws Top Democrat demands answers from CBP on security of biometric data MORE; but he shocked party bosses and pundits by coming within inches of victory.  

His unexpectedly narrow loss caused some Republican hand-wringing, with a number of operatives kvetching privately that if only the party had shown more faith in Gillespie there could easily have been a different result.

Adding to the intrigue at Saturday's event — which will be held at the property owned by farmer and conservative activist Martha Boneta — is the prospect of a 2017 Senate race in Virginia that would occur if Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE wins the presidency.

If Clinton goes to the White House, her vice presidential pick Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Air Force nominee: Setting up Space Force would be 'key imperative' MORE would have to vacate his Virginia Senate seat.

Political insiders will be scouring the Liberty Farm event Saturday to see which rising Republican talent might be well positioned to make a run at that seat.

“It's going to be a big celebration of Virginia politics, but also national politics,” Boneta said.

Reid Wilson contributed reporting.