RNC Chairman Michael Steele Campaigns for Robert F. McDonnell in Bristol, Va.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele joined a rally in Bristol, Va., for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele joined a rally in Bristol, Va., for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009

BRISTOL, Va., May 23 -- The Republican Party Version 2.0 -- the Obama Era model -- rolled into southwestern Virginia coal country Saturday full of pluck and optimism about a governor's race that will be a barometer of its hope for a national revival.

Michael Steele, the charismatic and controversial head of the Republican National Committee, lent an air of consequence to what otherwise might have been a routine rally by Republican candidate Robert F. McDonnell in this NASCAR-obsessed town that calls itself the "Birthplace of Country Music." Next to a table stocked with sweet tea and pimento cheese sandwiches, Steele called McDonnell part of a GOP "renaissance."

Party faithful hope McDonnell, who has mostly steered away from divisive social issues and focused on energy independence and the economy, will embody the new -- and still evolving -- Republican ideal in a year when only New Jersey and Virginia hold major statewide elections.

"A lot of people have said the road to the resurgence of the Republican Party goes through Virginia and New Jersey," McDonnell said before the rally at the Bristol Public Library, one block from the Tennessee state line. "I'm just trying to be the governor of Virginia."

Steele played as much to the cameras in the back of the room as the 100 party loyalists, who applauded loudly when he talked up his now-famous "drill, baby, drill" line and accused Democrats of failing to recognize the benefits of "clean coal."

"All you Democrats who are going to watch this videotape," Steele said, casting his gaze over the heads of his audience at the cameras behind them. "You guys need to get a clue."

Steele's appearance gives an early hint at what is sure to be a contest fought as intensely at the national level as on the ground in Virginia. Rivalries don't come any more claustrophobic than this: Steele, the head of the Republican Party and former lieutenant governor of Maryland, dueling with Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Party and governor of Virginia. The Democratic Governors Association has funneled $2 million into the state for ads attacking McDonnell, who is counting on help from national Republican groups to counter-punch.

"It's sort of like the Battle of the Potomac for the national party leaders," said McDonnell, who is unopposed and will face the winner of next month's heated Democratic primary.

President Obama is expected to campaign in Virginia for the winner of the Democratic primary, a contest that features former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, former Virginia delegate Brian Moran and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds. In some ways, the stakes are as high for Obama as they are for the Republicans, with the race "behaving a lot like the first midterm election of a new president's term," said Frank Atkinson, a Republican lawyer and author of "The Dynamic Dominion," a book about Virginia politics.

Steele, the RNC's first African American chairman, wants badly to broaden the Republican base. On this day, though, he spoke to an all-white audience, with the exception of one African American campaign worker, in a city that is 93.6 percent white and 6 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"I like your name," Steele said to retired schoolteacher Nancy Steele.

Later, Nancy Steele -- who is white -- helpfully pointed out that she is not related to the Republican party chief.

"He's a breath of fresh air!" Nancy Steele said.

Virginia's gubernatorial race, along with New Jersey's, could amount to early referendums on Steele's leadership of the Republican Party after a rocky start to his tenure in which he was forced to apologize after calling talk-show host Rush Limbaugh "incendiary" and made comments that raised questions about his commitment to his party's pro-life stance.

"Without doubt, the Republican Party will try to use these elections as a way to reestablish its brand and prove its viability," said U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who lives in nearby Abingdon. "It also suggests that Mr. Steele needs to establish some victories, perhaps, to establish his own viability."

Boucher's congressional district is an idiosyncratic target for McDonnell and Steele. The district is the only Virginia district that voted twice for President Bill Clinton and twice for President George W. Bush, according to the Almanac of American Politics. But although Virginia delivered a key victory for Obama last year, the city of Bristol voted 2-to-1 for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

This week, during a speech to Republican state party chairmen in Prince George's County, Steele declared "an end to the honeymoon" for Obama, whom he accuses of overspending. Those remarks made him fans here in Bristol, where a line formed to shake his hand.

"He's got more coming," Steele told a woman who praised his criticism of Obama.

McDonnell has set Virginia's chattering class atwitter by not mentioning the word "Republican" in his first campaign ad, leading some to speculate that he is trying to inch toward the middle of the political spectrum after leaning right in his early career.

"I'm a Republican and proud to be a Republican," he said in an interview. Asked whether he would identify himself as a Republican in future ads, McDonnell said: "I don't know. I'll let you know when I run the commercials."

In his speech at the rally, McDonnell said he agrees with Obama on charter schools and merit pay for teachers. But he also seemed to make a point of emphasizing his Republican bona fides. He drew applause by vowing that he would "uphold the right to life in Virginia" and pledged to protect the right to bear arms and private property rights. And he predicted the largest turnout in 15 years for the state Republican convention, which he said would feature former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and conservative television host Sean Hannity.

At a news conference after the rally, a local television reporter wanted to know why McDonnell would campaign with Steele, given that the party chairman has been such "a lightning rod" for criticism. McDonnell rushed to Steele's defense, saying it is normal for people to "pick on you" when you start a new job.

But Steele chuckled about the attention his presence had drawn, glancing at the reporter and saying, "I'm just glad he noticed."

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