- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Whether for horses or political candidates, nothing evaporates quite like a double-digit lead when the favorite loses the momentum in the homestretch. Only three weeks ago Ralph Northam held a 13-point polling lead in the race for governor in Virginia, and the latest polls now show Mr. Northam in a dead heat with the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie.

Bonehead mistakes are often fatal in the homestretch. The Northam campaign pulled a beaut just last week when it scrubbed the face of Justin Fairfax, the Northam running mate, from a campaign mailer. Mr. Fairfax is black, and blacks make up 20 percent of Virginia voters. One explanation was that Mr. Fairfax had offended certain labor-union leaders and the scrubbing of the photograph was meant to mollify big labor.

Another was that the scrubbing was inadvertent. There were other less generous explanations. Maybe Mr. Northam imagined he had to do something to appease Virginians he offended by turning the back of his hand to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes astride bronze horses on the courthouse square. But nobody likes being taken for granted, and the scrubbing of Mr. Fairfax was recognized as a snub by the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency.

Barack Obama rode to the rescue of Mr. Northam with a rally to make some noise for the Democratic ticket, including Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor. Voter turnout nearly always falls off for everybody in odd-numbered election years, and the former president’s appearance on the stump was meant to blow a little wind into the Northam sails.

Mr. Obama was dispatched to speak in Richmond, where the majority of voters are black and the capital is a Democratic stronghold. He was not dispatched to Southside, the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest Virginia or the Eastern Shore, where he would have been an anchor, not a fresh wind, in the Northam sails.

Mentioning neither Mr. Gillespie nor President Trump by name, Mr. Obama accused Republicans of the campaign practices he and the Democrats have raised to an art form, blistering opponents for being “divisive.”

“We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up, because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Mr. Obama told the rally at the Richmond Convention Center. The question facing Virginia voters next month, he said, “at a time when our politics just seem so divided and so angry and so nasty, it’s whether we can recapture that spirit [of optimism and decency], whether we support and embrace somebody who wants to bring people together.” That “somebody who wants to bring people together,” in Mr. Obama’s telling, is Ralph Northam, the same Ralph Northam who, eager to restore civility, compassion and dignity to politics, calls President Trump a “narcissistic maniac.”

It’s Mr. Gillespie’s ads exposing Mr. Northam’s stance on so-called “sanctuary cities,” and his soft approach to illegal-immigrant gangs, that are widely thought to be responsible for erasing his once-formidable lead in the public-opinion polls. As lieutenant governor, Mr. Northam earlier this year cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate to defeat legislation that would have prohibited any city or county in Virginia from declaring itself a “sanctuary” city or county for illegal immigrants.

That’s the kind of stumble that transforms a runaway into a horse race, and it only takes a moment.

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