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President Obama's Role in the Virginia Governor's Race

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The latest Post poll shows Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds slipping in Virginia. The Post asked political experts where the White House is in this race and where it ought to be. Below are contributions from Larry J. Sabato, Karl Rove, Thomas M. Davis III, Leslie Byrne and Gerry Connolly.

LARRY J. SABATO

Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and author of "A More Perfect Constitution"

Given the polls suggesting the likelihood of a GOP sweep, President Obama's advisers are wondering how much effort they should expend for Creigh Deeds. The candidate hasn't helped his cause by irritating the White House and keeping his distance from Obama. With Gov. Jon Corzine (D) showing signs of life in New Jersey, the temptation will be to put all of Obama's chips on the Garden State.

But that's a mistake. There are only two governorships on the ballot this year. Obama will be held accountable for the Virginia result whether or not he sets foot again in the commonwealth. The stakes are particularly high since the Old Dominion provided a startling electoral college breakthrough in 2008 that Obama will need to repeat in 2012. Prematurely conceding Virginia to the GOP isn't smart.

It will be very difficult to reverse the tide, but if Obama can bring his old magic back to Virginia, he might confound the polls by reenergizing minorities, the young and suburban independents. Helping Deeds achieve a surprising upset would have tremendous impact politically. At the least, the president's energetic stumping in targeted areas could save some Democratic House of Delegates seats, even if Deeds goes down.

This may seem like small potatoes to a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but the president is still the head of his party. Obama has an obligation to plant the flag, maybe especially in rocky soil.

KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal; Fox News contributor

Republican Bob McDonnell's growing lead shows that, although Democrat Creigh Deeds beat better-funded, better-known primary opponents, he had no idea what to do in the general election. McDonnell did, focusing relentlessly on jobs, education and transportation.

The candidate who first makes abortion an issue generally loses. Deeds inexplicably raised the issue by attacking McDonnell as pro-life, then compounded his mistake by devoting months to other social issues, while McDonnell talked about jobs, education and transportation.

Deeds's assault on McDonnell's 20-year-old college thesis was ham-handed. Nothing falls flatter than an over-the-top attack. McDonnell's counter-punch was more powerful, erasing the gender gap in the latest Post poll.

Deeds distanced himself from President Obama and criticized what "was coming out of Washington, D.C." This hurt him with African Americans (never that excited about him) and Northern Virginians, who, well, spend lots of time coming in and out of Washington.

West Wing officials are trashing Deeds's hapless campaign, perhaps as an excuse for the president's not campaigning: They don't want Obama tied to a political loss or appearing too partisan now. And McDonnell? He continues to talk about jobs, education, and transportation. The GOP is moving toward an important victory in the commonwealth.

THOMAS M. DAVIS III

Former U.S. representative from Virginia; president of the Republican Main Street Partnership

The White House does not need another setback. The president has more than fulfilled his responsibilities by raising money for the Deeds campaign and appearing with the candidate. Further expenditure of presidential capital will merely embolden administration critics. Moreover, Deeds's attempts to blame Obama for his electoral misfortunes are not deserving of being rewarded by further involvement. If the administration rewards such a visible dissing, it will only encourage more of it from other Democrats.

Deeds's problems and the changed electoral atmospherics are as much a manifestation of George W. Bush's being gone as Obama's being in. Blaming Obama makes it less likely that Deeds can motivate his base and re-create the turnout model that worked in 2008. Negativity worked with Bush in office but fades with the new dynamic.

From Deeds's perspective, further attempts to nationalize this race are misguided. His 2009 electorate will be far different from that of the 2008 voters, who carried Virginia for Obama by 125,000 votes. Election Day will be shaped by complacent Democrats, fewer minorities and college voters, and by more angry Republicans and seniors.

LESLIE BYRNE

Former Democratic member of Congress from Virginia

The stakes are high for us Virginians, but they are also high for the White House. President Obama and Vice President Biden have been working in Virginia's gubernatorial race on behalf of Creigh Deeds. But they must realize that it is time to take it up a notch. It is in their interest to do so. It would be easy to chalk this up to wanting another win in the Democratic column, but there is more at risk.

Governors can be partners in job creation, education, health care and climate change, or they can be obstructionists, undermining everything the Obama administration is working to accomplish. For example, as governor, Bob McDonnell would be in a position to drag his heels in implementing health-care reform, as Gov. Jim Gilmore did with the State Children's Health Insurance Program. And there is every reason to think he would: As a legislator, McDonnell voted against expanding access to health insurance for pregnant women and opposed coverage for infants and toddlers with disabilities. If Obama wants a partner in a crucial state, he must fully engage.

GERRY CONNOLLY

Democratic member of Congress from Virginia

Flash back to October 2005, when Creigh Deeds trailed Bob McDonnell by double digits in the attorney general's race. By Election Day, Deeds closed the gap and lost by just 327 votes. It happened again this May when Deeds trailed his opponents, only to surge ahead in the final weeks to a decisive win in the Democratic primary.

Creigh Deeds is a closer. And in politics, it's better to be a closer than a starter.

The Washington Post poll shows McDonnell with a real but not insurmountable lead. A Deeds surge, spurred by the release of McDonnell's thesis, has run its course, and now we enter a new phase. Deeds must close strong and clearly define the choice voters face by talking about his plan to invest in transportation and protect our schools.

The White House has been engaged in this race -- both the president and the vice president have held events for Deeds. The extent of their continued involvement will be determined by a number of factors, including the crowded agenda of major issues we're dealing with in Washington. But it would be naive to believe that the White House will not remain involved on many levels in this campaign until Election Day.

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