- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

RICHMOND, Va. | The Democratic candidate in Virginia’s gubernatorial race is competing with the health care debate in Congress for the allegiance of party activists and volunteers in the state who vaulted Barack Obama to victory last November.

As Saturday’s first debate of the fall race afforded R. Creigh Deeds and his Republican rival, Robert F. McDonnell, a chance to crystallize their positions, Mr. Deeds also hopes it will jump-start key Democratic support groups in the 101 days until the election.

Republican activists, meanwhile, have rallied to Mr. McDonnell as their best hope to end eight years of losses capped by the worst ballot box beatdown in decades last fall. The GOP’s imperative for the 2009 campaign became urgent: Go hard or go home.

“No question, there’s a lot of softness in support among some core constituencies, and he’s got a lot of work to do,” said Democratic blogger Ben Tribbett.

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s first visit for Mr. Deeds on Aug. 6, a rally and fundraiser in the Virginia suburbs - a short drive from the White House, will change some of that.

But each day, White House allies such as the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America barrage millions of volunteers and activists with e-mails, tweets and postings on social networking sites. They exhort supporters to reprise last year’s door-knocking, phone banking and neighborhood canvassing to pressure Congress to enact Mr. Obama’s priorities, particularly health care and climate change legislation.

Virginia’s election? Check back later.

“I think the issues of the day for voters in Virginia tend to be the national issues - health care, the environment, the economy - and the issues that are Virginia-specific in the governor’s race haven’t really gelled,” said U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat.

But how much courtship is needed for liberal activists to fall for a moderate, sometimes even conservative, country lawyer?

The candidate is a state senator from Bath County, far from the cities and suburbs where Democrats thrive. Mr. Deeds has supported gun rights legislation, notably opposing a state law limiting people to one handgun purchase per month. He supported Virginia’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. He has not rejected a coal-fired power plant proposed for Surry County and he backs clean-coal research, calling that energy source too important to be dismissed.

That helps explain the midsummer chill between Mr. Deeds and some liberal groups.

Virginia Beach environmentalist Eileen Levandoski, who runs blog VBDemocrats.org, said young, Internet-savvy Democratic volunteers are multi-taskers who can push simultaneously for Mr. Deeds and the president’s agenda. They just haven’t.

Miss Levandoski likes Mr. Deeds for his unpretentious manner and sides with him on many issues. But she echoes those Democrats who complain he hasn’t spoken forcefully enough on issues dear to their hearts.

For one, she wants Mr. Deeds to advocate for federal cap-and-trade legislation intended to cut carbon emissions that are blamed for global warming. Republicans want him to do the same, believing it will cost him votes, particularly in southwest Virginia’s coalfields.

“We want him to win, but we want him to win engaged on what is front-and-center on our minds,” Miss Levandoski said.

Mr. Deeds also needs to communicate with black voters - another major Democratic constituency.

In 2005, L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, did not endorse Mr. Deeds for attorney general, who lost to Mr. McDonnell in the closest statewide election in Virginia history after a six-week recount. Mr. Wilder hasn’t warmed to Mr. Deeds this time either.

In the June 9 primary, the only congressional district Mr. Deeds lost was Mr. Scott’s 3rd District, the only one in Virginia with a black majority.

On Monday, major Democratic donor Sheila C. Johnson, billionaire co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television network, shocked both parties by endorsing Mr. McDonnell.

Mr. Deeds’ campaign manager, Joe Abbey, acknowledged it’s difficult for Mr. Deeds to make himself heard over the orchestrated activism aimed at Congress. The rest he categorically rejects.

“It’s July! Our activists are active and they’re excited,” Mr. Abbey said.

By the fall, he contends, Mr. Deeds will benefit from the legions of volunteers organized by Mr. Obama’s campaign and the 500,000 new Virginia voters they registered last year.

“We have 500,000 Democrats on the rolls - they’re new, they’re there. That is a number we can go after. We know who they are, we know where they live and we know how to get them motivated,” Mr. Abbey said.

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