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Deeds should've listened to us, senior Obama officials say

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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

Sensing that victory in the race for Virginia governor is slipping away, Democrats at the national level are laying the groundwork to blame a loss in a key swing state on a weak candidate who ran a poor campaign that failed to fully embrace President Obama until days before the election.

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Senior administration officials have expressed frustration with how Democrat R. Creigh Deeds has handled his campaign for governor, refusing early offers of strategic advice and failing to reach out to several key constituencies that helped Obama win Virginia in 2008, they say.

Democratic strategists said that over the summer, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) offered Deeds advice on winning a statewide election. Among other things, Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Deeds that he should lay out more of his own vision and stop attacking Republican Robert F. McDonnell so ferociously. But Deeds did not embrace the advice, according to a national Democratic strategist.

A senior administration official said Deeds badly erred on several fronts, including not doing a better job of coordinating with the White House. "I understood in the beginning why there was some reluctance to run all around the state with Barack Obama," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race. "You don't do that in Virginia. But when you consider the African American turnout that they need, and then when you consider as well they've got a huge problem with surge voters, younger voters, we were just a natural for them."

A second administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Obama, Kaine and others had drawn a road map to victory in Virginia. Deeds chose another path."

A loss for Deeds in Virginia -- which for the first time in decades supported the Democratic presidential candidate in last year's race -- would likely be seen as a sign that Obama's popularity is weakening in critical areas of the country. But the unusual preelection criticism could be an attempt to shield Obama from that narrative by ensuring that Deeds is blamed personally for the loss, particularly given the state's three-decade pattern of backing candidates from the party out of power in the White House.

Deeds advisers insist the notion that he has distanced himself from Obama isn't true. "We've enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the White House," said Mo Elleithee, a campaign spokesman. "The campaign has worked very closely with them and the DNC and the [Democratic Governors Association] from the very beginning. They have given us just about everything the campaign asked for."

A key meeting

An adviser to the Deeds campaign said that on June 17, top campaign staffers held a meeting with the White House political team as well as representatives from the DNC and the Democratic Governors Association at the DGA's Washington offices. They came equipped with some requests of the White House: two visits by the president before Nov. 3, e-mails from the president to his Virginia supporters and a visit from Vice President Biden. Almost all of their requests have been met, the adviser said.

But national Democrats are contrasting Deeds with New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine and New York congressional candidate Bill Owens, who they say have more actively sought the White House's help and more vigorously and publicly backed its agenda. Polls show Corzine in a competitive position in New Jersey and Owens ahead, while Deeds has turned aggressively to Obama voters in recent days in an effort to overcome a significant deficit in the polls.

Although Deeds often praises the president on the campaign trail, he has distanced himself from Obama and Democratic policy priorities at times. At a debate in September, he declined the opportunity to label himself an "Obama Democrat." And just this week, he said he did not believe that a public health insurance option is necessary and that as governor he might consider opting out of one if Congress extends that right to states.

Deeds campaign officials said they're running a centrist campaign, in the mold of previous successful Virginia Democrats.

Obama will campaign with Deeds in Hampton Roads on Tuesday, and his political organizing group this week sent an e-mail signed by Obama to tens of thousands of Virginia supporters asking that they volunteer for Deeds to keep "the promise of change alive" in the commonwealth. The White House also signed off on a Deeds television commercial released Thursday in which Obama praises him.


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