By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
NORFOLK, OCT. 27 -- One week before Election Day, the first Democratic president to win Virginia in more than four decades told a largely college-age, African American crowd of thousands not to count out R. Creigh Deeds, despite polls that show his Republican opponent has a double-digit lead in the race for governor.
"A lot of people are saying the polls don't look the way we want them to. I'm not sure it's going to happen. Folks are just kind of staying home," President Obama told a raucous crowd of 5,700 at a rally at Old Dominion University. "Listen, let me tell you something. I don't believe in can't. . . . I am absolutely confident that we can if you are willing to work in this election."
Deeds has pinned his comeback hopes on rallying the Democrats who propelled Obama to victory in Virginia last year, but it's unclear whether the president's popularity in the swing state will be enough to help the state senator overcome a series of campaign missteps and a national atmosphere favoring Republican Robert F. McDonnell.
A Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed McDonnell leading Deeds among likely voters by 55 to 44 percent, with the Republican holding big advantages on the top issues.
Obama greeted Deeds (D-Bath) with a prolonged hug and several pats on the back before delving into an energetic speech that was repeatedly interrupted by prolonged applause and shrieks of "I love you!" and "Yes, we can!" from the sign-waving crowd.
Deeds gave a spirited speech that touched on the themes of his campaign -- his rural roots, legislative record, proposals on the economy and education -- without mentioning McDonnell.
"We only have seven days left. I need your help to drive out every single vote we can. We did it last year!" Deeds said. "I'll tell you this: If I believed every poll I ever looked at, I would have quit the process a long time ago."
Last week, White House aides and other national Democrats said Deeds's campaign has failed to fully embrace Obama in a state where he could help motivate black and young voters, as well as the half a million new voters who turned out for him last year.
Although Deeds often praises Obama on the campaign trail, he has also distanced himself from the president and some of the policy proposals touted by the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Mark Bowles, a Richmond lawyer who is a longtime Democratic activist and a Deeds supporter, said Deeds's actions follow a pattern of successful Democratic statewide candidates who did not fully embrace Washington figures. "They have always held the tradition of running as Virginia Democrats," he said.
But, Bowles said, Deeds needs to embrace Obama to try to energize Democrats and get out the vote Tuesday. "He's got to try to get some of that Obama energy," he said.
In August, Obama headlined a rally for Deeds in Northern Virginia. He has also lent his voice to TV and radio ads and had his political organizing group send out an e-mail that he signed to tens of thousands of Virginia supporters asking them to support Deeds.
For his second Deeds rally, Obama chose Norfolk. Nearly half of the city's population is black, and it is at the center of Hampton Roads, one of the state's most competitive regions.
In the Democratic primary in June, Deeds won every congressional district in the state except the one that includes parts of Richmond and Hampton Roads, which have high concentrations of black voters. A pair of prominent African Americans, former governor L. Douglas Wilder and Sheila Johnson, the wealthy co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, have hurt Deeds's chances among blacks by withholding their support.
About 15 percent of all likely voters in Virginia are African Americans this year, with about 89 percent favoring Deeds, according to the Post poll. Last year, 20 percent of all voters were African American, with 92 percent favoring Obama, according to network exit polls.
Seven in 10 Virginia voters said their views of Obama will not be a factor in their choice for governor, according to the poll. The rest are about evenly divided between those who say their vote will be motivated by their desire to express support for the president and those who want to voice opposition to him.
Four years ago, President George W. Bush joined Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore for an election eve get-out-the-vote rally, but the last-minute effort appeared to make no difference, as Timothy M. Kaine (D) soundly defeated Kilgore.
Obama and Deeds were joined Tuesday by Kaine, a close friend of both men, in addition to Democratic candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor, Steve Shannon and Jody Wagner. The president told the crowd -- mostly ODU students -- that Deeds would run in the mold of Kaine and former governor and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
"In one week, you'll have a choice on whether to break that tradition of good stewardship or continue with that opportunity," Obama said. "You'll have the opportunity to elect someone who is cut from the very same cloth as Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Someone who listens to folks even when we don't agree. Somebody who focuses on short-term politics but on a long-term vision, and that man is Creigh Deeds."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.