- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 31, 2009

RICHMOND | A year after Barack Obama handed the Republicans their first presidential defeat in Virginia in 44 years with a pledge to restore jobs, the Democrats appear to have squandered the party’s advances.

Polls predict a strong Republican victory in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. They also show how powerful the issue of jobs and the economy remains — and how quickly the Democrats lost ownership of it.

The elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey are seen by some as the first voter verdicts on Mr. Obama’s presidency and a possible sign of trouble for the Democrats’ large majorities in Congress.

In Virginia, recent polls show Republican Robert F. McDonnell leading by 11 to 18 percentage points over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.

“We learned from what Obama did last year, and the party and Bob McDonnell took those principles as far as connecting with people and turning out the vote, and now it’s all working,” said Wendell S. Walker, a 57-year-old GOP campaign volunteer in Lynchburg.

Mr. McDonnell, a former attorney general and social conservative who entered politics in Pat Robertson’s home base of Virginia Beach, made the election a referendum on Mr. Obama’s — and the Democrats’ — marquee initiatives: health care reform and an energy bill that discourages fossil-fuel use, a threatening proposition in Virginia coal country.

He also criticized Mr. Obama’s economic policies, even urging legislative Republicans in April to reject $125 million in federal stimulus aid for jobless Virginians as unemployment rates spiked.

Mr. McDonnell portrays Mr. Obama’s policies as grave threats to businesses, jobs and family finances. That has put Mr. Deeds in the no-win position of either breaking with his party’s president or embracing his most polarizing policies.

Mr. McDonnell has distilled his campaign into three simple words on bumper stickers and yard signs: “BOB’S FOR JOBS.” He has said he will create jobs by reducing taxes on businesses and fattening the pool of money governors use to entice employers to the state.

Meanwhile, Mr. Deeds never established a clear, consistent message about the economy.

“That’s what a lot of us are saying: ‘I wish he’d talked more about jobs,’ ” said Hahn Deniston, a Democratic volunteer from Colonial Heights.

National trends certainly hampered Mr. Deeds. Unrest about health reform, stimulus spending and the energy bill manifested itself in vehement “tea party” rallies by conservatives and angry confrontations when members of Congress, particularly Democrats, held public meetings.

Mr. Deeds also broke with Mr. Obama on several key policies, even saying that he would consider opting Virginia out of any federal health care plan that includes the public option. That alienated the committed liberals who were the tireless, meticulously organized force behind last year’s Democratic sweep.

“His chances of pulling together a last-minute surge out of Obama voters was slim, but I don’t see that happening at all now,” said dispirited Democratic activist Eileen Manning.

The issue of taxes yielded Mr. Deeds’ most disastrous moment. Mr. Deeds said he would increase taxes to raise the billions of dollars needed to fix Virginia’s crumbling and crowded roads. When reporters pressed him after a September debate for details, his answers seemed confused and, at one point, angry. Mr. McDonnell turned video of the response into a damning television ad.

“A year ago,” said Richmond political blogger and former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Bob Holsworth, “the outcome that seems likely here would have been inconceivable.”

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