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.
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.
Don Beyer, a former lieutenant governor, said many in his party could remain undecided until they step into the voting booth -- if they show up at all.
"We're not showing the energy and dynamism that we showed last year," said Beyer, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
Only in the race's final days has Northern Virginia become a focus.
Deeds has bought a costly raft of TV ads that tout his endorsement by The Washington Post. His campaign says more volunteers and money quickly followed a dramatic surge in the polls. Deeds's retooled strategy also included sending an average of eight mailers to a targeted group of 100,000 Northern Virginia voters.
"We've been able to adjust to circumstances," Deeds said.
Deeds also juggled his schedule to include a series of appearances in the area. On Friday, he stood with a small knot of supporters at the Clarendon Metro stop and then briefly addressed diners nearby with state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington County.
The competition has responded. In a series of radio interviews Friday, Moran turned his full focus on Deeds for the first time. He rushed out new campaign mailers and recorded phone calls focusing on Deeds's pro-gun votes. Friday also marked the first day that McAuliffe sent a tracker to monitor Deeds.
McAuliffe has picked up the mantra of Howard Dean, the man who promised to help national Democrats compete in all 50 states. McAuliffe pledged to compete across the state, opening eight campaign offices in Northern Virginia and six more scattered across the rest of the state -- organizational might never before seen in a Virginia primary.
It's a strategy made possible by a $7 million campaign budget and made necessary because he formally began his run in January with no natural state political base, despite 17 years as a McLean resident. "My argument is I'm not trying to pick little pieces of the state to try and put together a majority of the vote," McAuliffe said. "I'm playing everywhere."
His team says the campaign's central themes -- that he would bring the heft of a national profile and the skill of a savvy business career to the governor's mansion -- have played well with Northern Virginia's professionals.
Moran's strategists said they still see their candidate in the strongest position, with his base located in the most Democratic part of the state, where voters have a history of voting even when turnout is low. Moran has worked to shore up support in more liberal Northern Virginia by running as the race's unabashed liberal. Although all three candidates oppose the 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, only Moran has pledged to work for its repeal while in office.
"On issue after issue, whether it's equality for all Virginians, including gays and lesbians, whether it's insuring all of Virginia's kids, I reflect and share values that Northern Virginians share as well," Moran said.
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.