By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
The first Democratic president to win Virginia in more than four decades encouraged his supporters Thursday night to return to the polls in November and elect Democrat R. Creigh Deeds governor.
President Obama met first with about 200 of Deeds's top donors and then rallied with about 1,500 cheering, sign-waving Deeds supporters in a ballroom at the McLean Hilton Tysons Corner.
Obama said Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, had created a tradition of pragmatic, bipartisan leadership that helped the state weather the economic recession better than others.
"That's not just a stroke of good luck here in the state of Virginia," the president told the crowd. "It's because you stood up and chose that kind of politics. . . . Now you've got the chance to keep moving forward with someone who's cut from the same cloth, somebody who has that same vision for the commonwealth: Creigh Deeds."
Obama and Deeds were joined on stage by Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a close Obama ally.
Obama urged crowd members to "get fired up again" and convert their enthusiasm into energy to elect Deeds.
It was the president's first campaign stop for the rural state senator since Deeds won his party's nomination in the June 9 primary. The two men spoke by phone the day after that, and Obama pledged that he would do what he could to help Deeds win the governor's mansion and succeed Warner and Kaine.
Obama could prove critical in revving up Democratic voters for Deeds, sparking interest among some of the thousands of new ones who were inspired by his campaign last year. His endorsement could be particularly useful in convincing young voters and African Americans that they should support Deeds.
In the race for attorney general four years ago, Deeds lost to Republican Robert F. McDonnell by 360 votes. Deeds's vote totals in majority-black districts lagged behind Kaine's. He faces McDonnell for the state's top job, and this time he hopes to boost his support in areas that saw record turnout for Obama.
The visit came as McDonnell has been working to nationalize the race, confident that Virginia voters are souring on Obama and his agenda.
The crowd in the ballroom instead seemed to revel in a chance to return to last year's campaign fervor, breaking out in rounds of "O-bama!" and "Yes, we can!"
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin struck a measured tone about the rally, welcoming Obama to Virginia and saying it is "always an honor" to host a president in the state.
"When the administration and Congress push initiatives that will negatively impact Virginians, Bob McDonnell will oppose them," Martin said. "When the administration and Congress propose initiatives that will be positive for Virginians, Bob McDonnell will support them."
McDonnell has made controversial federal issues an increasingly big part of his campaign, particularly targeting Obama's effort to change health care -- "socialized medicine," as he has called it -- and a Democratic proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions. McDonnell has been chosen to give the national response to Obama's weekly radio address Saturday.
Obama, who acknowledged at the fundraiser that the economic climate will make the contest tough for Deeds, also used his appearance before the friendly crowd to make a full-throated defense of his economic stimulus plan, which he said has resulted in a tax cut for middle-class Americans and spending that sparked the economy. He said it took "selective memory" to suggest the recession had developed under his leadership.
"I don't want folks who created the mess doing a lot of talking," Obama said. "I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up!"
Deeds used his speech to focus on education. He called for increasing spending on preschool programs, raising teacher pay to the national average and forgiving the student loans of educators who agree to teach at-risk students.
"We should make changes that bring innovation and greater accountability to our schools," he said. "Changes that ensure our education dollars are being spent wisely and where most needed -- in the classroom."
McDonnell has sought to burnish his bipartisan credentials by praising Obama's embrace of charter schools and his push to tie teacher pay to student achievement, and he has suggested that his position on education is closer to Obama's than Deeds's.
But standing next to a smiling Obama, Deeds said otherwise.
"I strongly support the president's initiatives to expand charter schools -- there's no reason Virginia should lag behind on this," he said.
Deeds has used the education issue to remind voters that as a state delegate McDonnell opposed a popular 2004 initiative by then-governor Warner to raise taxes and make record investments in schools, a move repeatedly praised by Obama as having helped Virginia avoid the worst of the economic downturn.
Deeds, who hails from one of the state's most rural corners and is fond of peppering his speech with "gollies," chuckled and told the crowd that he was still getting used to the idea that the president would fly Marine 1 to Virginia for him.
The crowd objected loudly when Deeds modestly acknowledged that he was not the main event of the evening as he introduced Obama. Even so, the audience reserved its most deafening applause only for Obama.