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 WittmanWhy block citizenship to immigrants who defend America? Virginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Overnight Defense: House passes 5B defense spending bill | Pentagon moving forward on Trump military parade | Mattis vows 'ironclad' support for South Korea's defense MORE (R-Va.), and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 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 PenceDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Weld: 'We would be much better off with a President Mike Pence' Gabbard: Trump, Pence 'try to hide the truth' of Saudi-inspired terrorist attacks from Christian supporters 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 WarnerDems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Hillicon Valley: Trump unveils initiatives to boost 5G | What to know about the Assange case | Pelosi warns tech of 'new era' in regulation | Dem eyes online hate speech bill 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 ClintonDavis: The shocking fact that Mueller never would have accused Trump of a crime Trump says he would challenge impeachment in Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE wins the presidency.

If Clinton goes to the White House, her vice presidential pick Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Democratic proposals to overhaul health care: A 2020 primer Dems ask Justice Dept to release findings of Acosta-Epstein investigation 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.