President Trump jumped into Virginia governor's race again Thursday, with two tweets praising Republican Ed Gillespie as being tough on crime and protective of Confederate statues and "heritage."
"Ed Gillespie will turn the really bad Virginia economy #'s around, and fast. Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!" Trump tweeted at 10:07 a.m., an apparent reference to new Gillespie ads that call for preservation of the state's Confederate monuments.
The president is a native of New York. Gillespie grew up in New Jersey.
Four minutes later, Trump added, "Ed Gillespie will be a great Governor of Virginia. His opponent doesn't even show up to meetings/work, and will be VERY weak on crime!"
Gillespie's Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, is a former Army doctor and pediatric neurologist who grew up on Virginia's Eastern Shore. He responded to the president's tweet with his own: "I served 8 years in the Army, took care of sick kids, and am running to build a more inclusive Virginia. Don't talk to me about showing up."
Northam later shared a video of him treating patients at a free clinic in Southwest Virginia, adding: "While I was treating patients at the RAM clinic, Donald Trump was golfing in Sterling. You tell me who doesn't show up for Virginians."
With the election just 12 days away, speculation has mounted about whether Trump would hit the campaign trail for the Republican in the nation's only competitive governor's race this year.
Gillespie has repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether he would welcome the president to a state where Trump is deeply unpopular. Virginia was the only Southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton last year.
Vice President Pence, a longtime friend of Gillespie's, appeared in Virginia this month for a rally and was the featured guest Wednesday at a private Gillespie fundraiser in Fairfax County.
The candidate has struggled to find the right posture toward Trump. He needs support from Trump voters without turning off moderate Republicans and independents.
Trump first tweeted on the race earlier this month, endorsing Gillespie and falsely claiming Northam fights for violent gangs. Gillespie was slow to acknowledge that endorsement and did not comment until reporters asked him about it the next day.
On Thursday, Gillespie quickly retweeted Trump's praise.
In doing so, they elevated the issue of Confederate monuments — one of the most emotionally charged topics in the neck-and-neck governor's race.
White nationalists rallied in Charlottesville in support of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, leading to violent clashes in August that stunned the country and left three people dead.
Trump blamed both sides for violence and lamented the "history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments."
While Gillespie condemned the white nationalists, he said the statues should remain in place with additional historical context.
Northam initially responded to the Charlottesville unrest by vowing to be a "vocal advocate" to move the statutes to museums. He has since backpedaled, saying the decision should be made by local jurisdictions.
Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, has more monuments to the losing side of the Civil War than any other state.
Polls have shown majorities of Virginians want the statues to remain, with Democrats split on the issue and Republicans united.
Other references in Trump's tweets Thursday echo claims made in Gillespie's campaign commercials.
Trump's reference to Northam failing to show up to work echoes a common Republican attack line blasting the Democrat for missing meetings of various boards and commissions he sits on as lieutenant governor.
Virginia's overall economy was hit hard during the recession because of its dependence on federal government spending and regional ties to dying industries, such as coal, textiles and tobacco.
Unemployment is now at 3.7 percent, one of the lowest in the nation, and even Republicans have credited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) with being an enthusiastic recruiter of new businesses.
Still, the low unemployment rate masks an uneven recovery, with urban areas such as Northern Virginia and Richmond doing well while rural areas suffer.
McAuliffe, who is barred from seeking consecutive terms under the state Constitution, responded to Trump by defending the state's economy under his stewardship.
"Virginia unemployment is 3.7%. National unemployment is 4.2%. Stop tweeting and get to work," he tweeted.
Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.