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Race to Richmond

2009 election for Virginia governor | Latest News | Daily Roundup | Candidate Tracker

N.Va. Becomes Prime Battleground for Democrats Eyeing Governor's Seat

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Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds meet and chat with residents Friday in the vote-rich D.C. suburbs as they mount their final push ahead of Tuesday's primary. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post

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By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The three Democrats seeking their party's nod for governor of Virginia have launched a final, frenetic push for support in advance of Tuesday's primary, a contest that remains remarkably fluid because vast numbers of undecided voters are only just tuning in now.

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A campaign that has taken R. Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe from the unemployment lines in Martinsville, where one in five adults is out of work, to the Appalachian hollows where dental care is for many a luxury, has in its final hours become a battle for supremacy in Northern Virginia. In this sprawling suburban region, each Democrat sees a path to victory.

Deeds, a rural Virginia senator once considered the least likely to win, has retooled his strategy to capitalize on a surge of momentum. He has adjusted his message to tout his ability to solve the transportation problems that have vexed Washington area commuters.

McAuliffe, the well-funded former Democratic National Committee chairman, has focused on the need for more "green" jobs and is making an aggressive appeal to the suburban voters who helped Barack Obama carry Virginia last fall.

And Moran, a former state delegate from Alexandria, has run to the left of the others on such issues as gay rights and is turning to party loyalists attracted to his progressive agenda. He is also hoping to leverage the popularity of his brother, a veteran congressman from the vote-rich suburbs.

As a result, residents of Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties are encountering a flurry of mailers, volunteers at their front doors, dinnertime phone calls and a sudden onslaught of TV commercials. So contested is the area that Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), one of the few local officials who has remained neutral, said each campaign has called in recent days to beg for her support.

The candidates are responding to the results of the past three election cycles. The region's vast developments have been at the vanguard of a shift that has turned Virginia from one of the nation's most reliable Republican strongholds to a contested battleground. Twenty percent of Virginia voters live in Northern Virginia, but in recent years they have made up 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.

Tuesday's winner will attempt to preserve a dynasty that began with Mark Warner's election, was carried forward by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and blossomed with the election of two Democrats to the U.S. Senate and the first victory in the state by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. The race -- one of two major statewide contests this year -- will be the first electoral test for President Obama and for Kaine, who now moonlights as DNC chairman. Both are expected to direct millions of dollars into Virginia to defeat Republican Robert F. McDonnell in November.

"What is at stake in Virginia is whether we continue on a path of governance that Mark and I have tried to establish over the last decade," Kaine said. "It's really about how you want your state governed. If you like 'best managed state,' 'best state for business,' if you like 'best state for a child to be raised,' then let's keep governing and managing the state in the same way."

For months, much of the attention in the race had centered on its most unexpected candidate: McAuliffe, the well-known confidant to President Bill Clinton who joined the race in January, after serving as chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed presidential campaign. With millions of dollars from his enormous national network of donors, he began a presidential-style campaign across Virginia, building what is now believed to be a massive grass-roots organization throughout Northern Virginia and in the African American communities of Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Moran, long the presumptive favorite for the nomination, struggled to adapt to McAuliffe's entry into the race and is now hoping voter loyalty in Northern Virginia will be his trump card. As a symbol of his slow but steady effort, he has held on to a tortoise saved from a Prince William highway, keeping it in his SUV.

But it has been the race's most unheralded candidate that has shown momentum in the final mad dash of campaigning. Deeds, the most conservative and least polished of the three, has been blitzing the Washington suburbs since recent polls showed him surging in an area where it was assumed he would have trouble connecting with voters. Even modest success there could help him cobble together a majority, given his strength elsewhere.


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