- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Voters on Monday prepared to cast ballots in the first major elections since President Obama took office, offering a glimpse into how they think the president and his party have handled issues such as health care and the economy.

Republicans and their conservative allies were buoyed by late polls showing they could sweep the three biggest electoral prizes of 2009: the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ mansions and New York’s 23rd Congressional District seat.

Republican Robert F. McDonnell held a comfortable lead over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia’s gubernatorial race with polls stoking Republican hopes of securing the top three jobs in the state for the first time since 1997.

Polling showed Mr. McDonnell had made steady gains in the final weeks among those who identified themselves as Republicans and independents while substantially cutting into the Democratic advantage in Northern Virginia, which helped Mr. Obama capture the state last year and awarded the governorship to now-Sen. Mark R. Warner in 2001 and Gov. Tim Kaine in 2005.

“The streak of good elections for Democrats in Virginia ends tomorrow,” said Dean Debnam, the president of Public Policy Polling, a nonpartisan Raleigh, N.C.-based firm. “Republicans are going to sweep the statewide races, and the only real suspense is by how much.”

The latest poll by Public Policy Polling released Monday showed Mr. McDonnell leading Mr. Deeds by 56 percent to 42 percent. Additionally, the poll found that 63 percent thought that Mr. McDonnell had made a strong argument for election, while only 34 percent thought Mr. Deeds had.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates in the down-ticket races had comfortable leads over their Democratic opponents. In the race for lieutenant governor, Republican Bill Bolling led Democrat Jody M. Wagner 54 percent to 41 percent. And, for attorney general, Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II led Democrat Stephen C. Shannon, 55 percent to 39 percent.

In New Jersey, the outcome of the neck-and-neck race between Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie hinges on how much of the vote is siphoned from the two candidates by third-party hopeful Chris Daggett. The latest survey shows Mr. Daggett could take as much as 12 percent of the vote.

It would be enough to sink Mr. Christie, an unlikely front-runner in this solidly blue state.

As in Virginia, polls show Mr. Christie’s campaign is boosted by Republican voters taking a keen interest in the race as his opponent struggles to energize disinterested Democrats.

In the special election for New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman mustered enough support from the “tea party” movement to force a liberal Republican nominee out of the race.

Mr. Hoffman now leads in polls of the Republican-leaning district in upstate New York.

The fate of the race depends on where supporters of Republican Dede Scozzafava, who quit the race Saturday, direct their votes. Mrs. Scozzafava endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, while Republican leaders in Washington now back Mr. Hoffman.

Other contests to be decided Tuesday that may provide a wider indication of the country’s political mind-set include mayoral races in several major cities, another special House election for California’s 10th Congressional District, and ballot initiatives in a handful of states.

In Virginia, nearly 25 percent more people already have voted absentee than in 2005 - an early indicator of interest in the race. Saturday was the last day of touch-screen, in-person absentee voting. In the last governor’s race, about 76,000 people voted absentee, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Nancy Rodrigues said there are many new reasons why Virginians can vote absentee this year, so the numbers might not provide a reliable prediction of voter turnout.

When Mr. Obama visited Virginia last week, the White House downplayed expectations in the state, which with his election went Democratic for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.

Among high-profile Democrats who have campaigned on Mr. Deeds’ behalf are Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has visited twice; and Mr. Warner, Sen Jim Webb and Mr. Kaine, who also serves as the Democratic National Committee chairman.

Republicans have also flooded into Virginia. Over the weekend, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour campaigned on behalf of Mr. McDonnell. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele is expected to join Mr. McDonnell on election night.

Mr. McDonnell made seven campaign stops Monday, beginning the day in Alexandria and traveling to Prince William County, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Abingdon, Richmond and Virginia Beach.

Mr. Deeds began his day in Roanoke and traveled on to Charlottesville, Richmond and finally Alexandria.

On Tuesday, Mr. McDonnell is scheduled to vote with his family in Glen Allen before traveling to Alexandria and then to Virginia Beach. He will be celebrating election night in Richmond. Mr. Deeds is scheduled to vote in Millboro with his family. From his native Bath County, he will then make several stops around Charlottesville before moving on to Richmond, where he and supporters will also be celebrating election night.

On Monday, Democrats were downplaying a possible loss in Virginia. Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, issued an e-mail in which he described Virginia as “red-tinged purple state where Democrats have only recently had success, the landscape in the Commonwealth is tilted heavily in favor of Republicans.”

“If Republicans can’t win both races with the wind at their backs, their top recruits on the ballot, multimillion-dollar investments and history in their corner, that will tell us a lot about whether Americans really want a Republican comeback,” he said.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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