PETERSBURG, Va. — The Democrats' decade-long push into Virginia — a national bragging point that they were moving into the once-solid Republican South — may be coming to an end.
Polls suggest that the Republicans could win the governor's office on Nov. 3 for the first time in more than a decade. One of only two statewide races this year — the other is the governor's race in New Jersey — the Virginia contest is being watched as a referendum not only on the Democrats' appeal in the region, but also on the party's agenda next door in Washington.
President Barack Obama will campaign in the state on Tuesday to help boost fellow Democrat Creigh Deeds, a state senator from rural western Virginia. In a troubling sign for the Democrats, however, White House aides speaking on background already have started taking shots at Deeds as a poor candidate, lest pundits blame Obama for his defeat.
Whether Virginia's and New Jersey's gubernatorial elections are the first signs of ratification of the previous year's presidential election or early warnings of a popular backlash is a perennial question.
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Virginia has a 30-year tradition of voting in governor's races against the party that holds the White House, so a turn this time against the Democrats might be discounted as routine.
The Old Dominion, however, also has emerged in recent years as a national bellwether, and if Deeds loses, that could signal problems for the Democrats nationally in next year's mid-term congressional elections. Obama won the state in 2008 with 52.6 percent of the popular vote, the closest state to his national average of 52.9 percent.
"Virginia is the new Peoria," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, referring to the Illinois city once used as a sociological test lab because it so closely reflected the average American community.
Virginia's also become the frontline for the Democrats' hopes to establish a beachhead in the South -- first in Virginia, then North Carolina, and perhaps even into Georgia.
Democrats won the Virginia governor's office in 2001 with wealthy businessman Mark Warner, then held it in 2005 with Warner's lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine.
They won back a U.S. Senate seat in 2006 with former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, then took the other seat from the Republicans in 2008 with Warner. It marked the first time since 1970 that Virginia had sent two Democrats to the Senate.
Capping it all, Obama won the state in 2008, the first time a Democrat had won there since Lyndon B. Johnson's coast-to-coast landslide in 1964.
"It was an enormous breakthrough," Sabato said. "If they lose it so quickly after the Obama victory, people will naturally ask if 2008 was an aberration."
Leading the Republican charge is former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell.
A graduate of Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, McDonnell faced a rocky stretch when news surfaced of his 1989 master's degree thesis, in which he wrote that working women are detrimental to the family and that the government should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
McDonnell now says that he's moved past those views, noting that half the members of his senior staff in the attorney general's office were women and that his daughter was a platoon leader in Iraq. "I'd call that the ultimate working woman, wouldn't you?" he told a group of Republican women in McLean, Va., recently.
His double-digit lead in polls is based in part on his stands on local issues such as taxes and transportation. McDonnell also is tapping into strong anti-Washington sentiment among Republicans -- and perhaps independents. In a debate last week, for example, he struck out against the Obama-backed proposal for a federal "public option" health insurance program, saying he'd keep Virginia out of it if possible.
"I believe a governor needs to stand up to Washington," McDonnell said. "I will be a governor who will stand up and say, 'That's not good for Virginia.' My opponent and his Washington allies that want to raise taxes won't do that."
Susan Allen, whose husband, George, won the governor's office in 1993 in what was seen as a backlash against President Bill Clinton, said she sees familiar signs now.
"It's deja vu," she told the women's rally in McLean. "A lot of you were with us in '93, when a lot of people were concerned about what was going on in Washington. Guess what: We're back at the same crossroads again."
Polls suggest that Republicans are more passionate about turning out to vote this time, while Democrats show little enthusiasm, particularly among the young voters and African-Americans who surged to the polls in 2008 to back Obama.
McDonnell got a boost when Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and an Obama supporter in 2008, endorsed the Republican.
"This isn't about party. This is about policy and the person," she said in explaining her support for McDonnell.
"I supported Barack Obama. I stumped around North Carolina for him. I believed in his message. I believed he was the right man for the job."
Turnout always drops in non-presidential elections, but the lack of passion among Democrats and independents for Deeds is palpable.
He's a cautious candidate, criticized for appearing indecisive on key issues such as whether to raise taxes to improve the state's clogged road network.
He's also an awkward public speaker. At a recent appearance in Petersburg, he held a black binder in his hands as he spoke to a dozen or so people in the state's film industry, thumbing through the pages for points he wanted to make.
"I know he has good ideas, but he seems to be holding back at expressing them," said Daphne Reid, a filmmaker there.
Deeds also has tried to walk a fine line on Obama, welcoming his help raising money and boosting turnout, while distancing himself from some proposals that might not sell well in Virginia. He refused to endorse, for example, the proposed "public option" of federal health insurance as part of a health care overhaul.
"I don't think a public option is necessary in any plan, and I would certainly consider opting out if that were available to Virginia," Deeds said.
Facing a possible Democratic loss, Obama's advisers have started spinning background stories to friendly media in an effort to ensure that a Deeds defeat won't be blamed on Obama.
They told The Washington Post that Deeds refused critical advice from them and worked too hard to distance himself from Obama.
"I don't know what advice they're talking about," Deeds told McClatchy on Friday, insisting that Obama's pending campaign visit and $6 million in contributions from the Democratic National Committee signaled that the president was not ready to write off the Virginia race.
"The president's going to be here on Tuesday," Deeds said. "I don't think they're throwing me under the bus."
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