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Perriello remains the underdog, despite attention from Obama, media

Ben Pershing

With President Obama set to fire up the base in Charlottesville on Friday night, Rep. Tom Perriello (D) has gotten a burst of attention from the national media for having run an energetic campaign in a tough district and for embracing Obama initiatives that many other Democrats have scurried away from.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius makes the point in his forthcoming Sunday column, as quoted by Politico's Playbook and Greg Sargent: "I can't help but think that if more Democrats had spoken in the voice of Perriello -- passionate about the economy, independent of Democratic interest groups and unapologetic about their record -- the results on Tuesday might look a bit different."

But for all the profiles written about Perriello, and all the talk among supporters that more Democrats should have followed his example, he remains a decided underdog heading into Tuesday's balloting against state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).

The most recent publicly released poll of the 5th district, conducted by SurveyUSA for WDBJ in Roanoke, showed Hurt leading Perriello among likely voters, 51 percent to 43 percent. A poll by the same firm in early October had Hurt ahead by 11 points.

SurveyUSA's numbers have played a controversial role in this race. The firm released multiple polls over the contest purporting to show Hurt with leads over 20 points, prompting Democrats to make loud and detailed complaints about the firm's methodology. For it's last two polls, SurveyUSA has used a different method to construct its sample.

Polls from other sources have shown a closer race. A Roanoke College poll released Oct. 18 showed Hurt ahead by 6 points. A survey conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland for The Hill had Hurt ahead by just 1 point, 45 percent to 44 percent. Other publicly released polls put the margin at 1, 2 or 6 points.

All of the surveys have two crucial points in common -- they have all shown Hurt in the lead, and they have all shown Perriello getting between 35 percent and 44 percent of the vote, dangerous territory for any incumbent. (Democrats hope that independent candidate Jeffrey Clark can peel away some support from Hurt, but the SurveyUSA poll gave him just 2 percent of the vote and the Roanoke survey had him at just 1 percent.)

Moreover, the country's best-known nonpartisan election forecasters all say Perriello is in trouble. The Rothenberg Political Report's latest ranking puts the race in the "Toss Up/Tilt Republican" category. The Cook Political Report places the contest in the "Lean Republican" slot, writing in early October: "Despite talk of a late Perriello surge and a sizable vote for tea party adherent Independent candidate Jeffrey Clark, the fundamentals of the race argue for a substantial Hurt win."

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Institute for Politics -- in Perriello's district -- wrote something similar Oct. 5: "Now the momentum is firmly behind Republican nominee Robert Hurt, a state senator from the southern part of the district, who has matched Perriello ad-for-ad on television and led every single partisan and independent poll released so far. The Crystal Ball cautions against counting out Perriello, who won one of the most stunning upsets of 2008, but this will be a far different year, and we are moving this race from Toss-Up to Leans R."

Can Perriello win next Tuesday? Absolutely. He defied the odds in winning a previously Republican district in 2008, ousting Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by 727 votes. He has outraised Hurt for the cycle by a wide margin and benefited from millions of dollars in spending by outside groups to help his cause. He has barnstormed around the district courting voters, and Obama on Friday may well energize some backers from 2008 who weren't otherwise planning to come to the polls this year.

But the bottom line is that Perriello appears more likely to lose than win, raising the question of whether the freshman will really end up being an object lesson for how Democrats should have campaigned, or just another victim of a Republican "wave" election.

By Ben Pershing  | October 29, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Virginia Congressional Races, Election 2010, Robert Hurt, Tom Perriello  
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