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Today’s Elections Will Test Democrats

WASHINGTON - Elections in a handful of states Tuesday, including governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia, loom as the first significant electoral test of the coalition that swept President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to victory one year ago.

This time, Democrats are braced for a tough night: Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds trailed Republican Bob McDonnell by double digits in late statewide polls. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine was neck-and-neck with GOP challenger Chris Christie.

The White House downplayed the national significance of the off-year elections, but Republicans, including GOP Chairman Michael Steele, portrayed them as referendums on Obama's presidency.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff called the results a potential "predictor" of next year's congressional elections. At a breakfast with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, he questioned whether Democrats would be able to maintain the voter energy and heightened turnout among blacks, Hispanics and young people that boosted their candidates in 2008.

"In reality, 2009 says almost nothing about 2010," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman countered, though he did predict a psychological impact: "There's going to be a period of introspection and self-flagellation" if Democrats lose.

Strong finishes by third-party candidates in New Jersey and a special congressional election in Upstate New York could signal voter discontent with both major parties and the nation's direction.

In a show of concern, the White House dispatched Obama on Sunday to campaign in New Jersey and Vice President Joe Biden on Monday to Upstate New York, where the congressional race has become a battle over the GOP's ideology.

Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign Saturday in the face of a conservative revolt against her support of abortion and gay rights. She endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, and national GOP leaders lined up behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.

Biden cast the race in the reliably Republican area - represented in Congress by the GOP since 1871 - as one with wide repercussions. "This has never been a place that embraced extremism on the left or the right," he said in Watertown, N.Y. "That's one of the reasons why what's happened in this campaign is, in a sense, so strange and so important."

Onetime Republican presidential contender Fred Thompson appeared at a rally Monday evening for Hoffman, and automated campaign calls featured former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The election will fill the seat formerly held by Republican John McHugh, who resigned after Obama appointed him secretary of the Army.

Also on the ballot Tuesday:

- Mayoral contests in a dozen big cities, from Miami to Seattle. In New York, Michael Bloomberg is seeking a third term. In Atlanta, City Council member Mary Norwood leads in polls; if elected, she would be the city's first white mayor since 1973.

- A closely watched referendum in Maine on whether to repeal a state law that would allow gay couples to marry. Same-sex marriage has lost each time it has been put to a popular vote in a state.

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