Wednesday, November 4, 2009

RICHMOND | At the exact minute polls closed in Virginia — 7 p.m. — the first song of the night came on the loudspeakers in a completely empty ballroom at the Westin Hotel, where not one supporter of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds had yet arrived.

It was The Band’s “The Weight.”

“I picked up my bag, I went lookin’ for a place to hide,” the singer sang. “Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand, and ‘no’ was all he said.”

Just 54 minutes later, Mr. Deeds was “lookin’ for a place to hide.” By then, he didn’t have many people to hide from: only a few dozen people had showed up for the election night “party,” and most hadn’t even finished their first cocktail (but perhaps the cash bar - with top-line booze going for $8 a pop - was a deterrent).

Shortly after 8 p.m. — by then all the top Democrats on the ballot had lost — the big-screen TV tucked in the corner of the tiny ballroom, which had been tuned to CNN for the running election returns, was switched to a slide show of Mr. Deeds on the campaign trail. Shot after shot showed him with Democratic luminaries such as President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and former President Bill Clinton.

That, at least a few said quietly, might have been part of the problem.

“I think a lot of people are just fed up with Obama,” said one Deeds supporter, who started to give his name but then said, “Wait, I better not.”

“Oh, don’t even get me started about Obama. Where was he?” said another, who also refused to give his name.

While a plethora of news articles emerged in recent days seeking to knock down national implications of the Virginia election, voters didn’t exactly agree with the media. Exit polls showed that more than a quarter of state voters said their vote was to express opposition to Mr. Obama and his policies.

Eight in 10 voters said they were worried about the direction of the nation’s economy — Mr. Obama’s economy — and the majority of those favored the Republican candidate, Robert F. McDonnell.

Independents, credited for delivering the state last year to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964, broke nearly 2-1 in favor of the GOP.

Long before Mr. Deeds came down to the ballroom to concede, a national Democrat took the stage.

“We’ve gotten used to winning most of these elections, so that’s a challenge,” said outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who’s head of the Democratic National Committee.

But he declared: “Our president, President Obama, is more popular in Virginia today than he was one year ago.” The sparse crowd applauded, but not enthusiastically.

A few hours before the polls closed, Mr. Deeds made the rounds on the small TV riser in the ballroom. At standup after standup — with the sound of waiters rolling in carts of iced beer in the background — reporters asked him the same question, often right out of the chute: Is this a referendum on President Obama?

At the first few stops, the candidate demurred, with a smile. But by interview No. 5, Mr. Deeds had had enough. “Look, the president was always part of this campaign,” he said through a tight smile. “We talked to the White House nearly every day.”

Yet just weeks before the election, The Washington Post, which endorsed Mr. Deeds, published a report that said just the opposite. “Deeds ignored advice, White House says,” the headline blared, declaring that Mr. Deeds was losing badly because he “failed to fully embrace President Obama until days before the election.”

But it was Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden who appeared to keep their distance, wary of getting their fingerprints on a campaign plunging into the abyss. Mr. Biden held a fundraiser in Alexandria a few weeks before the election, but barred the media (a picture speaks a thousand words).

Mr. Obama gave an impassioned endorsement of the candidate in the waning days of the campaign (which was quickly turned into a campaign commercial), but he did it in the Democratic stronghold of Norfolk.

Still, Mr. Deeds owned up to his campaign shortcomings. “I wish we’d had more resources,” Mr. Deeds said at one stop. Again, by the time he got to the end of the rotation, the candidate spoke more frankly. “I’m doing the best I can,” the worn-out candidate said, grabbing the lapel of his rumpled gray suit.

When Mr. Deeds finally took the stage Tuesday night, Mr. Kaine, the head of the national party, was conspicuously absent.

“This chapter is closed, but the next chapter is yet to be written,” a fired-up Mr. Deeds shouted. Then, just like that, he was gone.

“Let’s have another drink,” one woman in the small crowd said.

“No, let’s just go home,” said her companion.

Joseph Curl can be reached at

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