GOP Fervor for McDonnell Mounts as Election Nears

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

Virginia Republicans are heading into the homestretch of a campaign season with a level of enthusiasm unparalleled in recent years as gubernatorial hopeful Robert F. McDonnell surges ahead in the polls and gives hope to a party that has experienced a series of demoralizing defeats over the past decade.

McDonnell led his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds, by a significant margin in a Washington Post poll this week. But his supporters are also expressing a high level of excitement, a factor that could be key in motivating voters on Election Day.

In the poll, 41 percent of Republican McDonnell backers said they were very enthusiastic about his candidacy, compared with 21 percent of Democratic Deeds supporters about his candidacy.

Democrats have struggled this year to recapture a measure of the excitement that was pervasive last fall, when flocks of supporters helped Barack Obama become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia in 44 years.

Only half of the poll respondents who backed Obama a year ago said they are certain to vote next month, compared with the two-thirds of voters who backed Republican John McCain.

The enthusiasm gap has been evident at county fairs, back-to-school nights and other spots in Northern Virginia that typically overflow with campaign volunteers. McDonnell backers were quicker to blanket highway median strips with signs.

In Fairfax County, a community that has solidly backed Democratic candidates in recent years, more than 300 activists attended a recent GOP breakfast pep rally -- triple the number at a similar event last year, and so many that the pancakes ran out.

"I think it would be fair to say that the Republicans are feeling the urgency of the campaign far more than Democrats have been," said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "But I think as the election approaches, more and more Democrats are engaging and focusing on the race. I think between now and Election Day, the enthusiasm gap will close."

GOP leaders say the energy in their ranks stems in part from a hunger to reverse the trend that has favored Democratic candidates and sent the state and the country down what they see as the wrong path. Once a solidly Republican state, Virginia has two Democratic U.S. senators, a Democratic state Senate and a Democratic governor.

GOP leaders also credit McDonnell, whose pragmatic focus has made inroads among moderates and independents. Brian W. Schoeneman, 32, who attended the GOP breakfast rally, said he has gravitated toward the former state attorney general because he had moved away from the extreme conservative views outlined in a widely publicized 1989 graduate school thesis.

"I think our candidates are waking up and realize that's not what's going to win elections," Schoeneman said. McDonnell, he said, "had that background, but in this campaign, he's talking about policies. He's talking about transportation. He's talking about education. He's talking about the things that matter to me as a moderate."

The shift in energy has been particularly dramatic in light of last year's history-making presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats say that George W. Bush's absence from the White House has robbed the Democrats of a motivating force. They also say Deeds and most candidates lack Obama's charisma.

Bernard Hill, 71, of Ashburn said he has diligently voted for most of his life but never felt inspired to become politically active until Obama came along. He has done some volunteer work for Deeds, but he said he does not expect to become as absorbed in the state senator's campaign as he was in Obama's. "He is our Democratic choice, and I have to back him," Hill said.

Mitch Stewart, director of Organizing for America, a Democratic National Committee offshoot that grew out of Obama's campaign, said it is unfair to compare last year's "once-in-a-generation" campaign with this year's Virginia gubernatorial race.

The group spent much of the summer devoted to Obama's health-care agenda but has recently stepped up its efforts for Deeds. This week, Stewart e-mailed about 500,000 Obama supporters to urge them to back Deeds.

The attempt to galvanize Obama supporters has been complicated by Deeds's uneasy relationship with the president. A key part of Deeds's strategy is to appeal to voters in rural Virginia where Obama's endorsement of the Democratic nominee could be a liability, but Obama remains popular in Northern Virginia.

On Friday, Deeds (D-Bath) signaled that he plans to continue an aggressive push in rural Virginia, where polls have shown him trailing badly and with no momentum. His campaign released ads Friday airing in southwestern and Southside Virginia that say he is "from here, for here."

Strong support in Northern Virginia will be crucial if Deeds is to win Nov. 3. He began airing ads Thursday about transportation in Northern Virginia, and his campaign quickly released a statement reacting to the news that Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I join the Nobel Committee in standing by President Obama as he continues to spread his message of hope throughout the world," he said.

McDonnell has highlighted the few views he shares in common with Obama, notably his support of charter schools. He also congratulated the president Friday.

"I'm delighted to see the president of the United States bring honor to our country by receiving the Nobel Peace Prize," he said in a conference call with reporters.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and staff polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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