- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2017

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie are locked in a tight battle to become the 73rd governor of Virginia, according to polls, as they make their final preparations ahead of their second of three scheduled debate showdowns Tuesday in Northern Virginia.

With neither candidate showing an ability to pull away in a key swing state, the debate will mark a major chance to alter the dynamics of the race and score points with voters seven weeks out from Election Day.

For the candidates, the hourlong forum offers them a rare opportunity to cut through all the political noise coming out of Washington, deliver their messages straight to voters on issues including taxes, health care, and transportation, and give those who tune in a chance to get a sense of what makes them tick. Analysts say many uncommitted voters will just be starting to focus on the race, which many see as an early harbinger of the midterm elections next year.

“For a lot of voters, this debate may be the first time to see these candidates head to head,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies, which released a poll Monday showing Mr. Northam leading Mr. Gillespie by 5 percentage points.

The UMW poll, however, carried a margin of error of 5.2 percentage points and showed that Mr. Gillespie, who served as head of the Republican National Committee and as an adviser to President George W. Bush, is leading among men and self-identified independent voters. Mr. Northam is running strongly among women, Hispanic and black voters.

More than 10 percent of respondents said their vote remained up for grabs in the Nov. 7 general election.

“Our poll demonstrates how tough it is for these candidates to be heard in the age of President Trump,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Trump gets so much national news attention that I think it is hard for either party candidate to break through the domination of Trump news coming out of Washington.”

Suffolk University also released a survey Monday that showed the candidates running neck and neck in the race to replace Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is limited to a single term under Virginia law. In that poll, 12 percent of respondents had not settled on a candidate.

Hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, the debate is being moderated by Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and will air on local NBC affiliates throughout Virginia.

Trump as ‘millstone’

Northam campaign strategists believe their candidate’s winning formula involves tying Mr. Gillespie to Mr. Trump, whose approval rating is underwater in the Old Dominion, making him a “millstone around Ed Gillespie’s neck.”

They have dubbed Mr. Gillespie “Donald Trump’s lobbyist in Virginia” and questioned whether he is willing to stand up to the commander in chief.

They say voters will look favorably on Mr. Northam when they compare his background as a doctor who served in Iraq, a pediatrician and a lawmaker who led the charge to ban smoking in restaurants to Mr. Gillespie’s background as a lobbyist and a political operative in Washington.

“Ed Gillespie is a Washington, D.C., corporate lobbyist. He shows up for whoever pays him,” the narrator says in a recent Northam ad.

Mr. Gillespie and his team, meanwhile, insist Mr. Northam is trying to nationalize the race because he has been outflanked on the issues that Virginia voters care about most, including cutting taxes and the state’s right-to-work laws.

Mr. Gillespie, arguing that Mr. Northam “doesn’t deserve a promotion,” has cast himself as the embodiment of the American dream by introducing himself to voters as the grandson of a janitor.

“I inherited his work ethic from my parents, who ran a small grocery store. They never went to college but insisted I do,” Mr. Gillespie says in an ad that played in Northern Virginia. “I got a degree, started three small businesses and advised a president of the United States. Where we start out in life shouldn’t determine where we end up.”

Mr. Gillespie nearly upset Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, in the 2014 Senate race, and parlayed that energy into a promising gubernatorial bid. But he almost got upended in the Republican primary when he eked out a win over Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and a strong Trump supporter.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Gillespie is facing a different political landscape than he was three years ago because there is now a Republican in the White House and there appears to be more voter enthusiasm in the Democratic ranks.

“Gillespie’s biggest problem is the national environment,” Mr. Davis said. “His greatest plus is he has run statewide before. He is an experienced campaigner and knows how to campaign.”

But it is the Democrat Mr. Northam who holds the fundraising edge.

His campaign raised more than $7.2 million from July 1 to Aug. 31, and had $5.62 million cash on hand. Mr. Gillespie pulled in $3.7 million over that same period of time, and had $2.6 million in his war chest, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The race between Mr. Northam and Mr. Gillespie is the high-profile race of the 2017 election cycle. A less competitive gubernatorial race is playing out in New Jersey, where Democrat Patrick Murphy leads Republican Kim Guadagno by a double-digit margin in the polls

The Nov. 7 election in Virginia also features races for attorney general between incumbent Democrat Mark Herring and Republican John Adams, and for lieutenant governor between Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel and Democrat Justin Fairfax.

Control of the Virginia House of Delegates will also be on the line.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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