Incoming N.J. and Va. govs tell how they won -- and why Palin didn't campaign for them
By Dan Balz
AUSTIN -- On the day that Sarah Palin kicked off her book tour to enthusiastic crowds, the two newest Republican governors sought to explain why the former Alaska governor had not campaigned on their behalf this fall.
Palin is a potentially potent force among some conservative voters, but also someone whose unpopularity among independent voters could prove to be a negative in a campaign. But both Virginia Gov.-elect Robert McDonnell and New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie said her absence in their states had nothing to do with concerns that she might prove to be a drag on their candidacies.
McDonnell said he had tried to get Palin to campaign for him earlier in the year but "she was in such incredible demand" that "we were just not able to work out anything." Once she stepped down as governor and might have had more time on her hands, he said, "We had pretty much arranged all of the folks we had for the home stretch."
Although statewide campaigns try to plan their schedules well in advance, it is highly unusual to have no flexibility to schedule even on short notice a surrogate with the drawing power of someone like Palin. But McDonnell said, "We pretty much had our strategy set at that point."
Christie explained that he didn't seek her help because he was highly selective about the use of outside surrogates. He asked only outsiders with whom he had a strong personal relationship or who had faced circumstances similar those in New Jersey and could explain how Republicans ideas and philosophy had helped in governing.
That limited the number of prominent GOP officials working for him in New Jersey, he said, to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Their comments came during a press briefing at the Republican Governors Association meeting devoted to an assessment of how the two candidates had won their races. Both credited the RGA with significant financial and strategic assistance at critical stages of their campaigns.
Their twin victories -- and the support they received from independent voters -- have been interpreted by Republicans as evidence that the agenda of President Obama and the Democrats has caused a voter backlash. But Christie and McDonnell offered different interpretations of the national implications of their races.
"I don't think the national debate played much of a role in New Jersey," Christie said. He cited the unpopularity of current Gov. Jon Corzine as the defining issue in the race there. National issues were "background music" to the competing visions he and Corzine put before the voters, he said.
RGA executive director Nick Ayres said early television ads in Virginia paid for by his committee had helped establish McDonnell on the issues and that independent-expenditure advertising attacking rival Creigh Deeds early in the fall had "devastated" the Democratic nominee's image and turned the race around in Northern Virginia.
"That's really where the dynamics of the race changed," said Glen Bolger, who did the polling for McDonnell's campaign.
In New Jersey, where the RGA could not contribute directly to Christie's campaign, Bolger explained, RGA chairman Haley Barbour had insisted on spending early money on independent-expenditure ads that helped redress the imbalance the amount of money Christie and Corzine were spending. The RGA ads, he claimed, prevented Corzine from defining the race on favorable terms.
McDonnell said that, while Virginia issues were central to his victory, he believed that his opposition to the Democrats' climate change bill and to a piece of union-backed legislation "made a difference" in his race.
McDonnell also sought to distance himself from recent comments by televangelist Pat Robertson, who gave money to his campaign and who in the wake of the killings at Fort Hood called Islam a "violent political system" rather than a religion. The alleged shooter at Fort Hood, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, is Muslim.
"I think people are entitled under the First Amendment to express whatever opinions they may have," McDonnell said. "But I can only say as governor of Virginia, I intend to have an inclusive administration."
He added that he does not agree with Robertson's characterization of the Muslim faith. "I think there are people of various religions that do some violent things and they ought to be judged by their acts," he said.
Web Politics Editor
November 19, 2009; 9:03 AM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , 50 States , Sarah Palin
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