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Virgina Race Seen as Referendum on Obama

MANASSAS, Va. - About 3 miles from the county fairgrounds where President Obama brought his 2008 campaign to a triumphant close, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell schmoozed his way through friendly crowds over the weekend, wearing the confident smile of a front-runner.

"Just remember, I'm promoting economic development," McDonnell joked with reporters and photographers as he stopped by massage therapist Elizabeth Martorana's table at the Manassas Fall Jubilee for a brief shoulder rub.

The laid-back scene belied the political drama unfolding in Virginia, where polls show McDonnell leading Democrat Creigh Deeds in the race for governor. National attention - and money - is focused on the race because it's one of only two gubernatorial elections that will be held this year. The other is in New Jersey, where incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine is behind in the polls.

Election Day is Nov. 3, exactly one year after the day Obama drew 90,000 people to this GOP-leaning community for a mammoth rally on the eve of his victory. In winning the White House, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964.

Now, Republicans here say, the political tide is turning.

"What's happening in Washington is not selling in Virginia, and we're going to be the ones to send the message out," Pat Mullins, chairman of the Virginia GOP, told a sold-out breakfast meeting of party activists Saturday morning.

Controversial thesis

The race is a rematch for two men who faced off four years ago in the closest election in modern Virginia history.

McDonnell, who became state attorney general by 323 votes out of more than 1.9 million cast, has TV-anchor looks and a smooth speaking style. For weeks, he's been trying to live down a thesis he wrote as a 34-year-old law student. It described working women as "detrimental" to the family.

Deeds, a state senator, is a rural Democrat who beat two better-known and better-funded candidates in the Democratic primary. He has a tendency to trip over his own tongue when it comes to describing his stands on some of the touchier issues in the race, such as taxes.

Many political observers here - including the candidates - agree that one key player in the race is across the river in the White House.

"It's being seen by both sides as a referendum on President Obama," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

After a summer in which town hall protests over Obama's policies dominated the nation's TV airwaves, Republicans are feeling upbeat about their chances. "The overall political atmosphere is certainly much different now than it was in 2008 when the president won," McDonnell said. "We've got a lot more enthusiasm and energy on our side."

Deeds concedes that the national political climate has complicated his campaign. "You've got a president who is trying to do things, and he's ruffling feathers," he said.

Adding to the political intrigue:

Virginia has a history of snubbing presidents. Not since 1973 has a candidate in the party that controlled the White House won the Virginia governor's election. The last time Democrats held both posts: 1965.

The national chairman of the Democratic Party is incumbent Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, barred by law from running for a consecutive term. The Democratic National Committee has invested $6 million in the race.

Virginia is one of three states in the nation that has no limits on campaign contributions. Republican Party organizations have bested the Democrats, pouring in more than $7 million to help McDonnell. Labor unions are adding millions to Deeds' war chest.

About one-third of the state's population lives in the suburban bedroom communities across the river from Washington, and according to Census figures, more than 60% of married couples in those communities include working wives. Deeds is saturating the airwaves with ads emphasizing McDonnell's thesis and his opposition to abortion. But the Democrat's supporters are worried about turnout.

Turnout worries

"It's hard to imagine people being as enthusiastic as they were last year," said Herschel Kanter, a Democratic activist in Falls Church, where Deeds stopped by to open a satellite campaign headquarters last week. For Deeds to win, "the president has to come back and energize the kind of people who don't care about state elections and tell them it's important to him," Kanter said. That would include blacks and young voters, who turned out in record numbers for Obama last year.

Obama has appeared at a fundraiser for Deeds, and Deeds says he's looking forward to the president campaigning for him.

The president "could be a positive factor," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., if Obama inspires his followers to go to the polls for Deeds. The president's policies are another matter in the senator's view. Webb says the administration "mishandled" health care legislation and the resulting "confusion and emotion" is affecting the gubernatorial campaign.

"Creigh Deeds has had to crawl out of a hole," Webb said.

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