Is Obama's Message Too Soft For Virginia?
Virginians unaccustomed to getting any attention from presidential candidates are suddenly at the red hot center of this campaign, and with Barack Obama down in the southern part of the state today and John McCain and Sarah Palin appearing at Van Dyke Park in Fairfax City on Wednesday, both sides are diving into exactly the parts of the state where their parties are weakest.
But are the campaigns pushing the right messages in their drive to win Virginia?
On Raw Fisher Radio today, I talked to strategists from both sides who agreed that the state is too close to call and that Obama probably has the tougher road ahead.
Despite the string of Democratic victories that have resulted in two straight Democratic governors and Sen. Jim Webb unseating George Allen, Mudcat Saunders--the Roanoke-based consultant who helped turn Connecticut Yankee Mark Warner into a beloved figure in rural Virginia--argues that Virginia is not yet a blue state.
Saunders says it was not so much Democratic strength as botched campaigns by the Republicans that resulted in some of the recent Democratic wins. "The anti-Republican sentiment I've seen is not washing off on John McCain," Saunders says. He suggests that Obama's path to victory in Virginia must involve a powerful embrace of economic populism and the kind of honest eagerness to learn and enjoy southern culture that Warner displayed in his 2001 gubernatorial campaign.
"You gotta remember, Mark came out here 53 times," Saunders says. "He didn't try to fool anybody. He said, 'I'm not from the culture, but it sure looks like a lot of fun.'" So when Warner donned camouflage and went hunting for the first time, and appeared genuinely to enjoy it, rural Virginians were impressed and didn't see anything phony going on, Saunders says.
Obviously, a many-months-long courtship of the kind that Warner waged in rural Virginia is not in the cards for Obama, but Saunders says the candidate should nonetheless "sit down with my boy Jim Webb for a while" and learn about the rural culture that seems alien to Obama.
Diana Bannister, vice president of Shirley and Bannister Public Affairs, a Republican consultancy in Alexandria, not surprisingly agrees that Obama has a long way to go to connect emotionally with rural Virginians. "Rural Americans--people who like their guns and their religion--don't like a presidential candidate going to a foreign country and speaking ill of Americans," she says, referring to Obama's recent journey to Germany.
But Bannister grants that McCain and Palin face an uphill battle in northern Virginia, where she says they need to emphasize their good government, reformer credentials rather than Palin's conservative stances on social issues.
Bannister was unwilling to engage on the question of what role Obama's race might play in the outcome in Virginia, but Saunders took on that issue head on. He noted that Al Gore lost by 16 percentage points in rural America, and John Kerry lost by 19 percent among rural voters. "If Obama loses rural America by 18 points, they'll point the race finger," Saunders says. "It's unfair."
He notes that Doug Wilder was elected Virginia's first black governor in 1989, winning 48 percent of the vote in the state's most rural congressional district. Race, Saunders says, certainly hasn't gone away as an issue, but is no longer a barrier to a candidate's chances, even in rural areas.
There's more on that issue and on many other aspects of the race in Virginia on this week's installment of Raw Fisher Radio.
By Marc Fisher |
September 9, 2008; 2:59 PM ET
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