Divides Aside, Va. GOP Agrees McCain Fumbled

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 19, 2008

S ome Republicans say John McCain is in danger of becoming their party's first presidential candidate since 1964 to lose Virginia because he hasn't put enough stress on issues such as illegal immigration, gay marriage and abortion.

No, no, say other Republicans: McCain is heading toward the worst GOP showing in Virginia since Barry Goldwater's because he and the party have strayed from the core principles that have lured moderates for decades -- lower taxes and less government spending.

Well, maybe, says a third set of Republicans, but the main problem has been that McCain has run an unfocused, low-energy campaign that comes off as sniping and negative, especially to independent voters.

What all three Republican perspectives share is the view that McCain's effort in Virginia is sputtering. McCain made his first visit of the year to Prince William County yesterday, and he and running mate Sarah Palin visited Richmond and Virginia Beach last Monday. This burst of attention may be too little, too late.

"I literally begged the campaign to have McCain or Palin visit," says Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "Prince William and Loudoun are the swing counties where this election will be won or lost. This is the battleground, and Obama and Biden have been here four times."

Stewart, who won statewide notice by pushing for his county's tough enforcement drive against illegal immigrants, says McCain has done himself and the party a disservice by steering clear of that issue. "But the reality is that McCain has never been strong on this issue," Stewart says, "and his differences with Obama on it are not very big." McCain has alienated some conservatives by proposing to let illegal immigrants stay here as guest workers and earn U.S. citizenship.

Although the emotional power of the issue has dissipated in Prince William -- Stewart says that's because the get-tough policy is working and many immigrants have left the county -- he's confident that a presidential candidate who emphasized a crackdown would be rewarded with victory in Virginia.

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli from Fairfax County, who largely agrees with Stewart on immigration, nonetheless argues that that's exactly the wrong kind of issue to stress in an election that will be won by reaching toward the center.

"You have to focus on what unites you," Cuccinelli says. "McCain is so far out there on this issue from the conservative base's perspective that you'd end up fighting with your own people rather than bringing in new people."

Del. Jeffrey Frederick of Prince William, who is chairman of the state Republican Party, argues that "immigration and the other social issues aren't really what people are thinking about right now."

"People care about those issues, deeply, but when they're driving home, they're not thinking about how to stop people from having abortions, they're thinking about the traffic and how to get home faster," Frederick says. He says McCain's mistake has been to be "all over the map on the issues. The key is to focus on very few issues and hit them relentlessly. Right now, that's the economy, health care and taxes."

(Frederick didn't help McCain's cause last week with a remark comparing Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden. The comment, which Frederick later said was meant as a joke, sparked denunciations from leading state Republicans.)

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