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White House Works Hard to Influence State Elections

President Obama greets New York Gov. David A. Paterson after a speech Monday in Troy, N.Y. Aides to the president have encouraged the Democratic governor, who is faltering in opinion polls, not to run to keep his job next year.
President Obama greets New York Gov. David A. Paterson after a speech Monday in Troy, N.Y. Aides to the president have encouraged the Democratic governor, who is faltering in opinion polls, not to run to keep his job next year. (By Mike Mcmahon -- Pool)

In the Virginia race, the twin aims are clear: Obama hopes to give a boost to Deeds, who according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is slightly behind his Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election, and make sure an ally is in the swing state's governor's mansion in 2012.

Wilder, who in 1990 became the nation's first elected black governor, is notoriously stingy with endorsements for fellow Virginia Democrats. He has caused Deeds headaches for weeks, both with his positive remarks about McDonnell and with his criticism of Deeds as not being more aggressive about defining himself with voters.

Wilder declined to endorse either man when Deeds and McDonnell ran against each other for attorney general in 2005, largely because Deeds has always opposed a signature achievement of Wilder's tenure -- a law restricting Virginians to one handgun purchase a month.

In July, Gaspard made a two-hour visit to Wilder in Richmond that did not lead to an endorsement. But it is possible that Obama's call will make a difference. On Monday, Wilder agreed to a meeting with Deeds, and he said he would have a statement about his endorsement later this week.

Of the call from Obama, Wilder said: "He's a Democrat. Mr. Deeds is a Democrat, and, obviously, the president would like to see a Democratic victory."

Obama has already visited Virginia once on Deeds's behalf, headlining an August campaign rally in Tysons Corner and a high-dollar fundraiser the same day. He is featured in a radio ad airing on black radio stations in the state.

But Deeds appeared to distance himself from the president last week as polls showed Obama slipping in a state that supported a Democrat for president in 2008 for the first time in 40 years. Asked at a debate whether he would consider himself an "Obama Democrat," Deeds paused before eventually offering: "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."

Despite the hedge, Deeds aides insist they think Obama can only help their campaign, by energizing liberal Democrats and black voters, two groups with whom the rural senator has lagged behind other Virginia Democrats.

White House officials certainly believe that is the case. Top Obama officials have been in touch with Deeds to discuss strategy, advisers to both said, and the campaign is in touch with either the administration or the DNC every day. Contacts directly with the White House, particularly over scheduling, have increased with frequency in recent days, as conversations continue about additional Obama campaign stops for Deeds between now and Election Day.

In the New York race, Gaspard flew to meet Paterson earlier this month to urge him to consider his poor standing in the polls, making no secret of the fact that the White House would like the governor to step aside, administration officials said. Paterson seemed open to the idea at the time, the officials said, but has since publicly declared that he plans to stay in the race.

A senior Democratic Party official close to Paterson said that while the White House pressure on Paterson amounted to a serious blow, the governor is likely to continue weighing his options until he can determine whether he still has support among Harlem's black political elite. Paterson was a longtime state senator representing Harlem.

The Democratic official, who speaks regularly with Paterson, said he thought the story about the White House effort to nudge the governor out was deliberately leaked to increase pressure on him to stand aside in favor of attorney general Andrew M. Cuomo. But he said Paterson is not likely to bow out -- and Cuomo will not risk a racially delicate challenge to Paterson -- unless the top black Democrats in the city ask Paterson to make way for Cuomo.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a previously staunch supporter of Paterson's, sounded less enthusiastic on Monday.

On Twitter, Sharpton wrote: "I have been on the phone the last 24 hours talking with White House, NY Governor Paterson, and other leaders around whether he should run." A few minutes later, Sharpton tweeted: "I hope that leaders put the agenda of the people ahead of personal agendas. We cannot let reactionary forces win back seats of power."

By "reactionary forces," Sharpton was apparently referring to former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, with whom Sharpton clashed repeatedly during the Republican's eight years in office. Polls have shown Giuliani leading Paterson in a head-to-head contest. Sharpton has recently been warning that a Democratic primary for governor would be divisive and could help Giuliani.

Although White House officials did not back away from their conviction that it would be better for Paterson to drop out of the race, the tone was muted somewhat on Monday as Obama arrived in the state for several days of events surrounding the U.N. General Assembly. In a closely watched encounter, Paterson appeared at the airport when Obama landed, waiting at the bottom of the stairs to greet the president as he walked out of Air Force One. The two had a brief, and apparently cordial, exchange.

Staff writers Keith B. Richburg in New York and Michael D. Shear, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.

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