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Lessons of two campaigns

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Memo to Democrats: You will be defined by President Obama whether you like it or not, so you might as well embrace him for the benefits he can bring you.

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Memo to Republicans: Talk a right-wing game in your ideological magazines and at your tea parties if that makes you happy. But to win elections, your candidates had better look like middle-of-the-road problem-solvers.

Those are the two outstanding lessons from the campaigns for Tuesday's governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia. Both parties would be smart to apply them in 2010.

In Virginia, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds is running well behind Republican Bob McDonnell, in part because the Deeds and Obama camps developed a profoundly dysfunctional relationship that they are only now setting right. As a result, too many of Obama's 2008 voters are disengaged, threatening Virginia Democrats all the way down the ballot. Deeds's long-shot hope is that Obama's last-minute efforts will finally turn on the president's legions.

In New Jersey, by contrast, incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine has hugged Obama as hard as he could, and the election has been moving his way. In a revealing tribute to Obama's Jersey popularity, Corzine's Republican opponent, Chris Christie, used his own Web site to post a video of Obama talking about change, the idea being that Christie is the change candidate this time.

For Republicans, Virginia teaches that a candidate with a right-wing past does best by playing down ideology in favor of appeals rooted in the practical: employment, schools and transportation.

McDonnell, whose roots are in Pat Robertson-style social conservatism, is running ahead -- by 11 points, according to this week's Post poll -- not only because he is rallying his base but also because he is cutting into past Democratic strength in Northern Virginia's exurbs.

McDonnell's success so far wins this backhanded compliment from Mo Elleithee, a leading Deeds strategist: "Bob McDonnell's campaign has been smart in that he's focused on the issues most Virginians care about, jobs and the economy, despite the fact that he has not focused on those issues for his entire career." Republicans who long to build a "center-right" majority should note that McDonnell has kept his eyes on the "center."

He got help when Deeds's campaign was thrown off course by a drop in Obama's Virginia approval numbers during the summer. Hoping to do better in the Virginia countryside than Democrats typically do, Deeds, from rural Bath County, worried that too close a link to the president would turn off more conservative voters.

Deeds never openly broke with Obama, but he equivocated. The distancing has done Deeds little good in Republican parts of the state, yet has depressed his support with the sorts of voters who gave Obama his 53-46 percent victory in Virginia last year.

The Obama camp compounded the problem by leaking a story to The Post in which presidential aides complained about the weakness of Deeds's campaign. Obama, who was described as unhappy with the leak, tried to repair the damage with a rousing rally on Tuesday in Norfolk, where he urged his supporters to turn out for Deeds. But he acknowledged that "the polls don't look the way we want them to" because "folks are just kind of staying home."

Corzine, by contrast, has willingly made himself a surrogate candidate for Obama. The governor's strategists have used the president in every way possible, his Web site boasting of Obama as "a partner in the White House." For his part, Obama has thrown himself enthusiastically behind Corzine and will make his third campaign appearance in New Jersey on Sunday.

The Obama camp sensed early that Corzine could overcome his own unpopularity with a fierce, well-financed campaign challenging Christie's integrity -- and with the help of a third-party candidate, Chris Daggett. According to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, Daggett is drawing roughly three votes from Christie for every two he is taking from Corzine. The poll gave Corzine, who has trailed for much of the year, a lead of 43 percent to 38 percent.

Other polls suggest a tighter race, but the trajectory in both Virginia and New Jersey sends a message to many moderate congressional Democrats worried about the 2010 elections: Whatever problems Obama may cause them, they almost certainly can't win without him. For their part, Republicans can make a race of it next year only if they realize that being angry and negative plays well on cable television but not at the polls.

ejdionne@washpost.com



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