In Rural Va., Coattails Strategy Does a Flip

Senate hopeful Mark R. Warner and presidential candidate Barack Obama have held seven joint events in Virginia, including one in Leesburg, since June.
Senate hopeful Mark R. Warner and presidential candidate Barack Obama have held seven joint events in Virginia, including one in Leesburg, since June. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

RICHMOND -- With Virginians so passionate about John McCain and Barack Obama as well as the Senate candidates farther down the ticket this year, a key question is emerging in the battleground state: Who is going to help whom the most on Election Day?

Some Democrats think that popular former governor and Senate hopeful Mark R. Warner (D) might do something unusual in a presidential election year: Help the top of his ticket.

But some Republicans warn that if Warner draws voters in traditionally conservative parts of the state, they could split their vote, and he could inadvertently end up helping McCain (R). Others say McCain's strength in military strongholds and elsewhere can work in favor of Warner's opponent, James S. Gilmore III, a former Republican governor.

"The real question is, how much of Warner's political campaign will he spend in rural Virginia?" said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "How much does he make the effort, actively linking the two campaigns?"

Warner could help secure much-needed votes for Obama (D) in the traditional Republican strongholds of rural Virginia, where Warner has made significant inroads.

"Mark is strong in some parts of the state that would not normally be strong for Democrats," said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a national co-chairman of Obama's campaign. "His being for Obama and vouching for Obama will improve Obama's numbers."

Republican presidential candidates have typically crushed their Democratic opponents in those regions of the state. But Warner won there in 2001 after casting himself as a moderate Democrat. Among other things, he sponsored a NASCAR vehicle.

A Washington Post poll released this week shows Warner remains popular across all regions of the state, including rural Virginia, where likely voters favor him over Gilmore by 58 percent to 36 percent.

Democrats expect Obama to win big in vote-rich Northern Virginia and perform well in competitive Hampton Roads, but their strategy, much like Warner's winning formula, includes securing as many votes as possible in rural Virginia.

Virginians do not register by party and have a long history of splitting their tickets. That means voters in rural areas who turn out in full force for Warner might actually lead to more votes for McCain. This summer, a Republican activist took some by surprise when he printed McCain-Warner yard signs.

In the Post poll, 29 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents said they support Warner, who depicts himself as a centrist leader who can work with members of both parties.

No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964, but recent polls show Obama and McCain locked in an extremely competitive race for the state's 13 electoral votes. This year, strategists from both parties say Virginia could be critical to capturing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Warner has shared a stage in Virginia with Obama seven times since securing the nomination in June. Three of those appearances were in rural Virginia.

He was tapped by Obama to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention over the summer and recorded a series of radio ads about Obama's bipartisan approach to restoring the economy, creating jobs and lowering taxes, which began airing last week across the state, including in southwest and Southside.

Democratic volunteers have distributed hundreds of thousands of Obama-Warner campaign brochures at homes across the state and printed Obama-Warner yard signs. Warner said that he wants to help Obama any way he can and that the senator should appeal to Virginians as someone who will be able to "find common ground" to solve problems.

Still, Gilmore and his supporters have accused Warner of shying away from his support for the more "liberal" Obama and say they share a fondness for raising taxes. "Mark Warner is definitely hiding from Obama," said Mike Wade, a Republican activist and chairman of the 3rd District Republican Committee in Hampton.

Warner has been spending most of his time campaigning for the Senate, although he frequently mentions Obama in his stump speeches. "I think my opponent is grasping at straws," Warner said.

McCain started the general campaign as the front-runner in Virginia, and Gilmore's campaign strategy from the start has been to mention McCain as much as he can in an effort to share votes with the presidential candidate. His campaign printed hundreds of "McCain-Gilmore" signs even before he won the GOP nomination, although state Republican officials say they are not distributing joint brochures or signs.

"We're all campaigning together on a unified ticket," Gilmore said. "McCain's going to win Virginia. I expect to benefit from that."

Gilmore has appeared on stage with McCain or McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, five times since McCain secured his nomination. He will appear with McCain or Palin at all three of their rallies Saturday in Springfield, Newport News and Glen Allen, Va.

"The better John McCain does, the better Jim Gilmore does," said George Allen, a former Republican governor and senator.

This week's poll shows Warner leading Gilmore by 30 percentage points. That margin was expected to tighten but has not budged after a year of campaigning.

"It's not like Mark needs help, but Barack is going to help Mark because there are no Obama-Gilmore voters," Kaine said. "So every Obama voter is a Warner voter."

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