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Fall eyes on Virginia

| Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009

WINCHESTER, Va.

Virginia will be the center of political attention this fall, thanks to the first statewide election in a battleground state since the 2008 presidential election.

"Here we go again," said Larry Larsen, an independent voter accustomed to national attention for Virginia races.

November's gubernatorial race matches former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat.

A SurveyUSA poll last week gave McDonnell a 15-point lead. RealClearPolitics shows McDonnell up 6.3 points, based on aggregate polling data.

"If McDonnell were to win this, the message it sends back to Washington is to slow down," said John Morrison, a Deeds supporter.

Morrison last week was planning a fundraiser for Deeds while taking orders at Piccadilly Print Shop, which he has owned for more than 25 years.

Larsen, a stockbroker and father of six, leans Republican. His issues hinge on the economy: "My income is not what it was last year, and right now it seems that none of the spending solutions are working."

Virginia and New Jersey will hand a report card of sorts to President Obama and the Democrat Congress with their governor's races this fall. Both are leaning Republican, but in politics, anything can change.

Northern Virginia favored Republicans from Richard Nixon's 1968 run until 2004, when it began shifting to Democrats.

Near Washington, D.C., it is home to lots of tech companies and their employees, and many who work in government (which has been expanding under Obama) and lean left.

The Virginia Beach and Richmond areas have favored Republicans since Nixon. Unlike their northern cousins, people there have become "redder."

Obama's Virginia victory was hugely related to high black voter turnout, especially in the Virginia Beach area. If that bloc does not show up for Deeds, he is in trouble.

It does not help Deeds that the nation's first elected black governor, Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder, is cool to him. Wilder told The Washington Times last week that Deeds risked becoming a "me too" candidate. Wilder then complimented McDonnell for reaching out to Virginians who don't traditionally vote Republican.

Despite a push from the White House, Wilder is miles from endorsing Deeds. McDonnell has made numerous calls on the former governor. Deeds' first meeting with Wilder is expected this week.

McDonnell beat Deeds for the attorney general's job by about 300 votes in 2005, a more favorable year for Democrats. (Hurricane Katrina had wiped out George W. Bush's approval ratings, just as the Iraq war's unpopularity heated up and Social Security reform fell apart.)

Obama's 2008 victory in Virginia was many years in the making, built on demographic changes and the election of three Democrats -- U.S. senators Mark Warner (also a former governor) and Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine. They built a new brand for Democrats as fiscally responsible and focused on improving people's lives rather than on divisive social issues.

So why is Deeds languishing in the polls?

"Washington's policies, plain and simple," said Philip Charles, a retired D.C. firefighter from Front Royal, Va. "Obama's charisma won this state last fall. His policies may cost his party a seat in the governor's mansion this fall."

Charles, another independent, is both under- and overwhelmed by what Congress has put on the table since January: "It is too much. People wanted change -- well, they got it, and now they want to stop it."

Virginia is poised to serve as a check on government's role in everyday life, its expansion and its spending.

Part of Deeds' problem is that voters exhausted after 2008's "change" hype don't feel things are getting better -- changing -- fast enough.

The 2010 mid-term elections will hinge on the economy and spending. If the economy roars back, Democrats can claim they made the difference. Or 2010 could be like 1982, when Ronald Reagan took a hit because the economy had not yet pulled out of recession.

The economy won't be better this November, when Virginia and New Jersey vote -- and when it comes to politics and the economy, jobs matter more than all other measures.

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