Va. GOP makes timely adjustment to changes in state

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Sunday, October 25, 2009

In the 12 years since James S. Gilmore III last claimed the governor's mansion for Republicans, Virginia has undergone dramatic demographic changes, becoming more populous, diverse, wealthy and educated. There are almost a million more Virginians; six in 10 are minorities, and 43 percent live in Northern Virginia

Democrats have taken advantage of these changes to claim nearly every major office in the state, but their decade-long run is in jeopardy this year as Republican Robert F. McDonnell appears to be making inroads among suburbanites and minorities through concerted outreach, a message built around quality-of-life issues and a direct embrace of Northern Virginia.

McDonnell's approach has been apparent throughout the race. He officially launched his campaign with a rally in Annandale, has returned to Northern Virginia repeatedly to target specific minority groups and has used the region as a backdrop for many major policy announcements.

The day before news of McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis broke, as he and his aides scrambled to respond, he spent 12 hours in Northern Virginia opening campaign offices, canvassing in cul-de-sacs and meeting with Vietnamese and Latino voters. Two days after the story appeared, as McDonnell sought to limit damage from a paper in which he argued that working women are detrimental to the family, he went to a high school in Alexandria to announce his education plan.

Equally evident is what McDonnell has avoided: rhetoric that ignites the conservative base but could turn off independent voters. He has been careful to intermingle praise for President Obama's education policies with criticism of his spending and health-care initiatives. He pronounced himself "delighted" that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, separating himself from those in his party who were ridiculing the president. And after personally asking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for help early in the summer, he changed his mind in August and asked the controversial conservative to stay away.

McDonnell campaign strategists said they don't expect to win Northern Virginia or a majority of minority votes, but they don't think they need to. In a state that remains Republican in most places, they said their goal is to keep Democrat R. Creigh Deeds from getting more than 60 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia -- the magic number strategists in both parties have come to see as a threshold for Democratic victories. In a Washington Post poll conducted this month, McDonnell trailed Deeds by just 5 points in Northern Virginia, 51 to 46 percent.

"Successful Republican candidates must be able to compete in Northern Virginia," said Phil Cox, McDonnell's campaign manager. "The old model where you could run up big numbers south of the Occoquan and hope for the best in Northern Virginia is a thing of the past."

The changes in Virginia have mirrored shifts that have occurred nationally, helping Democrats win elections by appealing to increasingly diverse, moderate, well-educated and affluent suburban voters outside such cities as Philadelphia, Denver and Minneapolis. On his way to winning the White House, Obama tapped into those shifts in Virginia and other states that previously tended to be unfriendly to Democrats.

National Republicans think a victory by McDonnell, who has led in every poll since June, would resonate well beyond Virginia because it would show that although many new, suburban voters have backed Democrats in recent elections, they're not wedded to the party.

"I think a win in Virginia will be a shot heard around the world and will show a strong comeback in the making," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who added that a McDonnell victory would create a "template for Republicans on a national level."

Strategy alone has not thrust McDonnell into the lead in the polls. He has benefited from general discontent about Obama and the direction of the country. Virginia Republicans are desperate for a win and solidly behind him. And he enjoys a big money advantage that has allowed him and his supporters to dominate the airwaves during the final weeks of the campaign.

History is also on McDonnell's side. In every gubernatorial election since 1977, Virginians have elected the party out of power in the White House.

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