GOP seeks model for 2012 election victory in Virginia

(Gregory Smith/associated Press)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009

RICHMOND -- On Monday, it was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. On Wednesday, it was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. And Saturday, it'll be Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Almost all of the Republicans considered top candidates for a 2012 presidential run have made stops this fall in Virginia, where they're hoping to help Robert F. McDonnell take the governor's mansion and discover a winning strategy for a party that lost Congress and the White House in the past two national elections.

As Republicans grasp for a strategy that will lead them back to power, they said that what they see in McDonnell -- a social conservative who has taken a commanding lead in opinion polls by running as a moderate problem-solver -- offers some promise that their party can succeed in this crucial swing state and beyond.

"Bob McDonnell is spending his time on issues that matter to voters, and that's always the right strategy," Barbour said in an interview before visiting the state. "He is concentrating on what people are talking about right now: jobs, the economy, spending and taxes."

Huckabee said at a news conference Monday that McDonnell is "representing core principals that people recognize as common sense. . . . I don't believe it's a matter of people saying: 'Oh, we want Republicans again.' They want responsibility and accountability."

The possible presidential hopefuls said they were particularly heartened that Virginians seemed to be responding to a message of slowing government spending, an issue they see as being to their advantage so long as President Obama and the Democratic Congress continue to push stimulus packages, health-care reform and other expensive proposals.

"I think there is a growing crescendo of support for holding down the level of government spending, keeping taxes down," Romney said at a news conference with McDonnell in Richmond. "These are Republican values that are gaining ascendancy."

The focus on kitchen table issues is a change from the approach that Huckabee, Romney and others took when they ran for president in 2008. They talked about the economy and "the war on terror," but Huckabee and Giuliani also focused heavily on immigration. And Romney talked about strengthening America's families through his opposition to abortion and his support of conservative judges.

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin heightened the party's identification with divisive social issues by emphasizing her opposition to abortion and employing rhetoric about a "real America."

McDonnell built his reputation in large part by staking out conservative stances on many of the same issues, but he has mostly avoided them on the campaign trail.

Huckabee said the trust that McDonnell enjoys among the party's conservative base allows for a message that speaks to moderates and independents. That combination, he said, is the key for McDonnell and the party.

"Bob McDonnell doesn't have to convince anybody of his bona fides," Huckabee said the day before a Newport News fundraiser for McDonnell. "Everybody knows Bob McDonnell is as solid as he can be on those issues."

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