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Virginia Notebook: The Front-runners & Their Partners

Tim Craig

Democratic Senate candidate Mark R. Warner and the presumptive GOP nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, have at least one thing in common.

Both start as the early favorite to win in Virginia this year -- Warner more so than McCain -- but they also have to determine how to interact with the other man from their party whose names also appear on the ballot statewide.

It's a potentially delicate dance that could determine whether one party or the other has a chance at sweeping both contests in Virginia.

McCain (Ariz.) has to decide how closely he wants to be linked to GOP Senate nominee James S. Gilmore III in Northern Virginia, where Gilmore may have a hard time selling his conservative message. But McCain has to stay competitive in the region if he wants to win the state's 13 electoral votes.

Warner's challenge will be in deciding how closely to associate with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, in southwest Virginia and other rural parts of the state. Past presidential candidates, with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996, have gotten crushed by the GOP candidates in those parts of the state. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Virginia since 1964.

Virginians have a long tradition of ticket splitting, but not necessarily in a presidential election year. Only once since the 1960s -- Charles S. Robb in 1988 -- has a Virginia Democrat won a Senate race during a presidential election year.

Warner, who holds a double-digit lead in the polls, appears well positioned to break that trend.

But his advisers expect the race will tighten considerably this summer. And Warner, who has a reputation for being fiercely competitive, isn't the type of politician who will be satisfied with a narrow win over Gilmore.

To achieve a big victory, Warner needs to win Republicans and McCain voters. Obama will probably run weakest in Virginia's rural communities, areas that Warner likes to boast he carried during his successful gubernatorial race in 2001.

Some Democrats are hopeful that Warner can bolster Obama in rural communities, but reverse coattails are rare in presidential contests. Last week, Warner rearranged his schedule to appear with Obama at a town hall meeting in Bristol in southwest Virginia, which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) won decisively in the primary.

"This is a good man," Warner told the audience. "This is a man of deep faith."

Because the Democratic primaries just ended, it's too soon to tell how Obama will fare in rural Virginia against McCain.

But given the showings of past Democratic presidential candidates, there is probably a good chance that Obama's positions on guns and illegal immigration -- not to mention the controversy over his former pastor -- will hurt him in that part of the state.

In past elections, statewide Democratic candidates in Virginia and other Southern states would just quietly distance themselves from an unpopular presidential contender.

Warner might not have that option this year, given the enthusiasm among core Democratic voters, especially African Americans, for Obama. Last month, the Richmond Free Press, an African American newspaper, ran an editorial warning Warner not to take black voters for granted.

Although they are unlikely to abandon him, black leaders and Democratic activists could
become disheartened if they think Warner isn't doing everything he could to lift Obama in rural Virginia.

The telling question won't be whether Warner appears with Obama in public, which as he proved last week, he almost certainly will.

The more important questions are: Does Warner wear an Obama sticker while campaigning in
southwest Virginia? Is Warner quoted in small-town newspapers touting Obama's candidacy? How does Warner respond to GOP attacks on his association with Obama, attacks that Gilmore's camp has promised?

Warner, who is trying to line up support from Republicans, appears uneasy about how involved he should get in the presidential contest.

"At the end of the day, if I get hired to serve as a senator, I am going to have to work with whoever the next president is," Warner said while unveiling endorsements from former delegate Vincent F. Callahan and former Senate president John H. Chichester Jr., both Republicans who support McCain.

Gilmore, however, sees the presidential race as his best opportunity for defeating Warner.

Convinced that Obama can't win Virginia, Gilmore has printed up hundreds of "McCain-Gilmore" buttons and mentions the "McCain-Gilmore team" in nearly all of his speeches.

"Barack Obama is Mark Warner's candidate," Gilmore said Tuesday.

Because Gilmore is not likely to win many votes this fall from Obama supporters, he is basing his entire campaign on the assumption of a McCain victory.

Given that the road to a statewide victory goes through vote-rich Northern Virginia, it's a risky strategy, for both Gilmore and McCain.

McCain, a former prisoner of war with moderate stances on some issues, thinks he can appeal to Northern Virginia's independent voters. McCain will first have to overcome the tainted GOP brand in Northern Virginia.

A Washington Post poll last summer found that 35 percent of the state's self-described independent voters live in Northern Virginia. Statewide, just 17 percent of independents said they wanted a Republican to win the White House this year.

McCain has a reputation for being independent-minded, but the other face of the Virginia Republican Party this year will be Gilmore's. And Gilmore's combative style , and his constant references to "liberals" could hinder McCain's efforts to reach out to suburban voters. In a Washington Post poll in October, Gilmore had a 35 percent approval rating in Northern Virginia.

Gilmore, who won Fairfax County during his 1997 bid for governor, vows to compete hard in Northern Virginia to improve his image.

If Gilmore fails to improve his standing, McCain advisers could come to dread those McCain-Gilmore signs. But McCain and Gilmore are now in this campaign together. So are Obama and Warner.

Who wins if voters in all regions of Virginia decide this is the year to hold a two-for-one election?

By Tim Craig  |  June 11, 2008; 5:36 PM ET
Categories:  Election 2008/President , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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It isn't hard to relate to Obama.

He is the Messiah, remember.

Just bow down to him and hope he blows his nose on you.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2008 8:22 PM | Report abuse

hey, capitalize Him, He and His, you heretic

Posted by: heretics! | June 11, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Chichester was never President of the Senate, he was President Pro-Tem. Only the Lieutenant Governor is President of the Senate.

Posted by: Get Your Facts Straight | June 12, 2008 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Are you kidding me? These people have a hard enough time spelling, why in the name of all that is Barack would you expect them to have correct facts?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 12, 2008 9:33 PM | Report abuse

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