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Robert Barnes
Metro Political Editor
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Metro Political Editor Robert Barnes was online Wednesday, November 8, at Noon ET to provide analysis of Washington area races, from the beltway and beyond.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Analysis from today: Democratic Voters in Washington Suburbs Solidify Their Power in Md., Va. Elections

Barnes became metropolitan editor in 1997. Prior to becoming the metropolitan editor, he was political editor for five years. He has also covered the Maryland General Assembly and the first Schaefer administration.

Transcript Follows:

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Robert Barnes: Good day! Everyone awake? It was a late night around here, but things coming into focus this morning. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has conceded this morning, calling Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and then meeting briefly with the press. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has a news conference scheduled for 12:30. And Virginia Sen. George Allen vowed to fight on, his deficit now about 7,000 votes. Let's talk about what happened yesterday.

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Re-evaluating Michael Steele: Bob:

The media largely fell in love with Michael Steele's campaign, and why I never understood. He ran slick ads that said next to nothing, practically tried to hide the fact that he was a Republican, and finished the campaign by blatantly pandering to black voters (in a late TV appearance, the only endorsements he mentioned were from blacks). Given that he still lost by 10 points to a rather bland guy in Ben Cardin, isn't it time to re-evaluate that campaign?

Robert Barnes: I think you have to separate the pundits and columnists, who clearly did love the Steele campaign, from the reporters who have covered Steele as Lt. governor and who covered his campaign. I think you'll find stories from the very beginning of his campaign that said Steele was more conservative than the state he sought to represent, and that was going to be a problem for him.

As for his strategy, I'm not sure what would have been a better one. The truth is that Republicans carried a very heavy burden in Maryland this year, because of the war and the President's popularity. Among the evidence: Ehrlich did worse in Montgomery and Prince George's than four years ago; Democrats picked up seats in the General Assembly and two longtime Republican moderates in Montgomery County, council member Howard Denis and Del. Jean Cryor, were swept from office.

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D.C.: Mr. Barnes,

Jeez. Can the Post look any more partisan?

Could you have made the headline "Democrats win the House!" any bigger?

I guess your page designers just couldn't suppress their glee, eh?

Robert Barnes: That doesn't seem like a terribly partisan headline to me. I remember some pretty big headlines in 1994, when Republicans captured the House.

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Vienna, Va.: How much credit or blame should the Post get for bringing down George Allen?

I know what you're going to say - that Allen made mistakes and brought it on himself.

Please. Your paper served as an echo chamber for the Democrats on the macaca gaffe, writing endlessly about it for days and days. Then you did the same thing about the Jewish issue and the N-word accusations.

Can you honestly say that your paper didn't help get James Webb elected?

Robert Barnes: I think the Post's coverage of Allen was tough, but I also think that's the kind of scrutiny a senator running for reelection should receive. As I've written before, I think Allen received the kind of attention he did--from the Post, from other Virginia media and from the national media--because he had set himself up as a candidate for president; I believe he and Hillary Clinton were the only such candidates running for reelection this year, and she certainly has received plenty of attention from the media.

But I am well aware that folks think the Post was too tough on Allen.

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Springfield, VA: If the maps used in the Post article "Area's Exurbs Watched For Further Party Shifts" are accurate, it would seem that the growing Democratic areas in Northern Virginia are also some of the highest income areas in Virginia. Is Northern Virginia becoming more like California where wealthy, well-educated liberal Democrats who are not in touch with the normal working class are calling the shots, or is this Democratic base still fairly moderate in its views?

washingtonpost.com: Area's Exurbs Watched For Further Party Shifts

Robert Barnes: That's a good question. You're absolutely right that the areas in Northern Virginia that have been voting Democratic are some of the wealthiest in the state. But I don't think anyone is ready to say those folks are Democrats, just that they are open to a Democratic message that is pragmatic. I think those voters are mostly moderate, especially in the fastest growing areas on the edges of the suburbs. For instance, Virginia Sen. John Warner remains very popular there, and you saw last night that even as Allen lost Prince William, the county elected a Republican as chair of the board of supervisors.

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McLean, Va.: Will Allen call for a recount or will he concede?

Robert Barnes: Allen has not conceded. The vote margin right now is about 7,000, with three precincts out. That is about three-tenths of one percent. Virginia law calls for a recount if it is less than a half of a percent, and the loser can ask for recount if it is 1 percent or less. My feeling is this is going to take a while unless Republicans feel there is little to challenge. You'll remember that Virginia had a recount just last year in the attorney general's race, and the judiciary was very specific about what could be considered and not considered.

We will have much on this in tomorrow's paper.

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You want a partisan headline: Check out the Richmond Times Dispatch's Web page:"Webb Clings to Lead" tries to make him sound desperate (clinging is a desperate verb). When, in fact, his lead is increasing with every hour!

Robert Barnes: Here's from another designer:

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re 'partisan' headline: I thought the size of the headline font indicated newsworthiness, not support. IE: "Japan bombs Pearl harbor" in really humongous letters...

Robert Barnes: On to another subject....

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Baltimore: It looks like Maryland voters decapitated the state's Republican party on election day and may have put an unexpected end to their grand plans to make Maryland a two-party state. I don't see any elected GOP officials in the wings to take over from Ehrlich and Steele as party leaders. Will it take another decade or two before the GOP can field a credible candidate for statewide office?

Robert Barnes: You are right about this being a big setback for Republicans in Maryland. Neither of the two Republican congressmen show an inclination to lead the party, and last night there were losses in the General Assembly as well. It will be interesting to see how Ehrlich and Steele rebound from these losses and how they see their political futures. But keep in mind that political climates can change quickly. Covering Tim Kaine's campaign for governor in Virginia last year, I had to keep reminding myself that President Bush had scored a resounding reelection victory there only 12 months earlier.

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Robert Barnes: This just in, courtesy of my colleague Matt Mosk:

Ehrlich came out to the front steps of the governor's mansion, stood in the light for just over two minutes, and conceded the race to O'Malley.

"I've had the ride of my life," Ehrlich said, as First Lady Kendel Ehrlich stood at his side with toddler Joshua in her arms. "I've tried to conduct myself with dignity and a little bit of a sense of humor. And we obviously tried to push the state forward."

"It's been an incredible run for the last 20 years for me," Ehrlich said of his time in the state legislature, congress, and four years as Maryland's 60th governor.

And I'm told that Steele called Cardin at noon to concede.

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Alexandria: Did Webb get his apparent lead just with a huge margin in Northern Virginia or did he also win any other section of Virginia?

Robert Barnes: Webb appears to have won all three congressional districts in Northern Virginia, and the Tidewater congressional district represented by Bobby Scott. Allen won the other seven districts

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D.C.: Is there a significant numbers of absentee ballots, or ballots from overseas military personnel, yet to be counted in the Virginia Senate race?

Robert Barnes: The military personnel ballots were mentioned this morning at the Allen news conference. Most of the other absentee ballots have been counted and are included in the latest totals, which show Webb about 7,000 votes ahead.

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Jim in Arlington: Regarding Vienna's comments on the Post's "bringing Allen down:" I was in Maine when he made the comment, and it was big news for several days in local papers there, Associated Press stories, not the Washington Post. Even people who were confused about "macaca" understood exactly what Allen meant when he added "Welcome to America." Then characterizing the question on his Jewish heritage as casting "aspersions" on his mom, then the ham sandwich comment, etc. He brought himself down. Wouldn't it be wiser for him now to gracefully concede? Since he won't reverse 7000 votes absent a huge irregularity, what does he have to gain by prolonging the inevitable?

Robert Barnes: If I'd spent most of my life in politics and was now trailing by less than half a percent, I think I would want to take a while to think about it, don't you? But I have talked with folks who think it will be hard to make up the difference, and I'm sure that will factor into Allen's decision.

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Falls Church, Va.: Can you explain how Virginia's recount rules work, and whether an 8,000 vote lead for Webb could possibly evaporate in a recount? Also, do you suspect Virginia 2006 will be like Florida 2000, with each party playing dirty tricks and making accusations of fraud? Do you see Allen's lawyers targeting minority precincts for allegations of fraud in an attempt to cast doubt on those heavily Democratic areas?

Robert Barnes: Well, you're asking all the right questions, but I'm not sure I can answer them. There is a difference, I believe, between the normal canvass work that goes on after an election--where each county looks for obvious mistakes in their totals--and an official recount. In other words, those totals could change throughout the day. I'll add this, from colleague Michael Shear's story online:

Under Virginia law, a margin of less than a half-percent can trigger a recount which the state pays for. A losing candidate can also request -- and pay for -- a recount if the margin is less than 1 percent. As of early Wednesday, the state-financed recount seemed all but certain.

A recount would not officially start until the state board of elections certifies the election-day results, which is scheduled to happen on the fourth Monday in November. Results of a recount may not come until December.

As far as specific allegations, there were none at the Allen news conference this morning, although there was mention of some malfunctioning machines in some locations.

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Rockville, Md.: Does Senator Allen's opposition to a recount with Bush/Gore in Florida 6 years ago have any relevance now in your mind?

Robert Barnes: I guess that is something to go look up, isn't it? I don't really remember Allen's role.

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Reston, Va.: Just a comment: I think what really brought down George Allen (and drove the Post coverage) was that the "macaca" incident was on YouTube and everywhere else on the Internet, and people could see it for themselves. I think if Allen did that 6 years ago and there was no video, (and who knows maybe he did?), there maybe have been a small article buried in the paper and nothing would have happened. But because that (and the incident last week) was available to everyone, it had much more impact.

Robert Barnes: I agree that the video had a huge impact on the campaign, and that the Internet played a role in this race unlike any I've ever seen.

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Silver Spring: What was the reasoning behind Steele waiting so long to concede?

Robert Barnes: I think part of it was that results were so terribly slow in coming last night. I was here until 3 am and there were still many missing precincts. It seems that the more the voting process is "improved" the slower it is in giving up the results. I also noticed that the victors no longer feel that manners dictates waiting for the concession call: Cardin, Webb and O'Malley all claimed victory last night anyway.

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Rockville, Md.: When would you expect the Post to call the Virginia and Montana races?

Robert Barnes: Um, don't skip lunch waiting.

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Alexandria: Re: Concession

I don't get what the rush is all about. I have heard some Republican blogs saying that he shouldn't look like the sore loser that Gore was in 2000 and hurt our democracy. Part of our democracy are rules governing how to make sure the votes are counted properly. Seems to me that we should wait and see what the voters of Virginia decided (even if, like me, you hope that it tips the balance of the Senate to the Democrats).

Robert Barnes: Thanks for that opinion

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Los Angeles: Does Allen even have the option to concede? If Webb's lead is less than .5 percent, which it is, does Virginia's law require a recount no matter what?

Robert Barnes: You raise a good point. The law would seem to call for a recount, but I'm not sure that the loser couldn't waive the right. That's one of the things we'll need to find out. Y'all should be editors.

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Baltimore: Why were the polls leading up to the election on the Maryland Governor race, in particular, so wrong? How was the Post able to predict black voter turnout more accurately than the Baltimore Sun?

Robert Barnes: The Post poll didn't predict black turnout--or the election results, I might add. It asked respondents a series of questions--how interested they were in the election, how sure they were to vote, how enthusiastic about their candidate, etc--and compiled a list of "likely voters." It turned out that 25 percent of those likely voters were black. At least last night, that seemed close to what the exit polls estimated, but we'll be looking more closely at those numbers.

But just allow me a shout-out for the Post's new polling director, Jon Cohen, who has handled all manner of questions about his work--some not so friendly--graciously and professionally.

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Adams Morgan: Rumsfeld steps down !!!

Robert Barnes: Just look at all the breaking news we've been able to bring you today!

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Rockville, Md.: How does the Post make its decision to call a winner. I notice that at 12:20 p.m. the Post is reporting that the Democrat in the Montana Senate race is up by 3,000 votes with 100 percent of the precincts counted. Surely if 100 percent of the precincts have been tallied it's time to call the election.

When would you expect the Post to call the last two Senate races?

Robert Barnes: Well, you never know if absentee ballots are included in those totals, or how many are there, or whether that small a margin triggers an automatic recount.

The Post makes its decisions based on many factors, but it all comes down to the Big Guy--executive editor Len Downie.

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Alexandria: My thanks to Los Angeles for caring about our election!

Robert Barnes: You're going to find a lot more people caring about you, Alexandria, if the Old Dominion decides control of the U.S. Senate. And by the way, that has to be another factor in Allen's decision-making.

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Robert Barnes: Hey, that's it for today, folks. I really enjoy these chats and appreciate your interest. washingtonpost.com will have plenty of other opportunities for you today and tomorrow's Post will be a politics extravaganza. Take care

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