Thursday, August 6, 2009

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds stands to raise a pile of cash and energize his party’s base at his first joint appearance with President Obama on Thursday, but it’s an open question whether it will do anything to help his faltering gubernatorial campaign.

Mr. Obama, his popularity sagging amid doubts over his handing of health care and the economy, could be a liability for the Virginia Democratic candidate, according a poll published Wednesday.

Nine months after he shocked the nation by becoming the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential election in 44 years, Mr. Obama has an approval rating of 42 percent among the state’s residents, according to the survey by nonpartisan Public Policy Polling, which is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Last month, the survey showed that he had a 48 percent approval rating.

Slightly more than half - 51 percent - disapprove of his performance, according to the poll, in which 37 percent of likely voters said they were less inclined to vote for Mr. Deeds because of his appearance with the president.

The Northern Virginia events - a fundraiser followed by a rally at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner - are also likely to underscore Republican criticism that the state senator, who is trailing by double digits in his race against Republican Robert F. McDonnell, refuses to take a position on national issues at play in the governor’s race.

When Mr. Obama came to Virginia twice to discuss health care reform, Mr. Deeds was conspicuously absent. Mr. Deeds also has avoided any discussion of issues such as cap and trade, stating during a debate with Mr. McDonnell that he’s not running for Congress, but for governor.

“The national situation has become far more complicated for the Democrats than it was eight months ago when they could ride [Mr. Obama’s] wave,” said analyst Bob Holsworth, a former public policy professor who runs Virginia, a political Web site. The Democratic ticket doesn’t “want the national Democratic policy agenda. Deeds has to negotiate that. That is his challenge.”

Campaign spokesman Mike Gerhke disputed the notion that Mr. Deeds has not addressed national issues.

“Sen. Deeds has been very clear with what he would do as governor,” he said. “He’s not afraid to talk about federal issues; however, he does think that Virginia issues are what should be talked about in the Virginia governor’s race.”

Mr. McDonnell, by contrast, appears to be embracing a national platform. He is scheduled to give the Republican Party’s weekly radio address, in which he is expected to discuss the need to create jobs in Virginia and across the nation.

Mr. Deeds trails Mr. McDonnell 51 percent to 37 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday.

Jerry W. Kilgore, the state’s Republican former attorney general, said he found it “ironic” that Mr. Deeds would skip Mr. Obama’s health care events in Annandale and Bristol.

“Creigh Deeds seems to be avoiding the president,” he said last week. “He won’t attend a town-hall meeting there in Bristol, he missed an earlier one up in Northern Virginia and Creigh Deeds certainly won’t take the position on important issues that are facing this nation.”

Mr. Kilgore, a candidate for governor in 2005, took criticism from Democrats for not attending a Norfolk speech by President George W. Bush a month before the 2005 gubernatorial election.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who hosted one of Mr. Obama’s health care town-hall meetings, defended Mr. Deeds, noting that arguing health care during the Virginia governor’s race is not in the best interest of voters, who should be hearing discussions about state, not federal, issues.

He conceded that Mr. Deeds is “walking a fine line.”

“He is understandably trying to have a discussion and a debate about Virginia issues and trying to steer clear of a debate about federal issues, which his opponent would dearly love for him to get into,” Mr. Connolly said.

But in an interview with The Washington Times last week, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said Mr. Deeds’ silence about the Obama health plan illustrates a lack of leadership. He said Mr. Deeds needs to clarify his position on issues that are important to Virginians.

“Tell us how you would react if you were governor,” said Mr. Wilder, who historically has been critical of some Democrats before offering his support.

Mr. Deeds needs the voters that Mr. Obama ably energized in his presidential campaign, specifically newly registered young voters and black voters. Mr. Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to take the state since 1964, won Virginia with 53 percent of the vote in November.

“Large numbers of Obama’s supporters aren’t planning to vote this fall and if he can get them energized for Deeds the race for governor will get a lot closer,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.

Mr. Holsworth said that with nearly 13 weeks before Election Day, Mr. Obama’s visit could go a long way to determining the tone of the Deeds campaign.

“Tomorrow is the beginning of the effort to see how Deeds is going to define himself in comparison to Obama - how is he going to find a way to utilize advantages Obama still brings Democrats, while not being weighted down by the same baggage he has recently accumulated?” he said.

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