2 governor races may be seen as measure of Obama


POSTED: Friday, August 07, 2009

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama has returned to the campaign trail. He is appearing in television advertisements in New Jersey this week on behalf of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the embattled Democrat struggling to win a second term. And he campaigned on Thursday evening alongside R. Creigh Deeds, the gubernatorial nominee fighting to keep Virginia in the Democratic column.

The New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races are the only big-ticket political contests for 2009. And fairly or not—Obama's advisers are not alone in arguing that the significance of these races does not extend beyond the boundaries of either state—the contests are being held up as an early measure of how Obama is doing and a predictor of how Democrats might fare in next year's congressional campaigns.

This is posing complications for the White House, as it dispatches Obama to help. Early polls show that Republicans have staked out leads in the two states: Robert F. McDonnell, the former Republican attorney general, over Creeds to fill the seat being vacated by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in Virginia, and Christopher J. Christie, a Republican former prosecutor, over Corzine in New Jersey.

Officials in both parties say that in the end, the races will be driven by local forces and concerns and note that historically, state midterm elections have proved to be poor prognosticators about future elections.

Still, the confluence of these two races—coming in the year after Obama's election and at a time when Democrats are trying to consolidate the gains they have made over the past two election cycles—could prove the exception. The outcomes could affect party fundraising, candidate recruitment and the confidence level of both parties.

“;In this case, perception is reality,”; said Nick Ayres, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. His counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association, Nathan Daschle, said, “;No matter what happens in either case, we'll all probably read too much into them.”;

Virginia and New Jersey are two very different states that could offer different perspectives about the direction of politics nationwide.

If the country is moving in a Democratic direction, as Democrats like Bill Clinton have argued, Virginia is on the leading edge of that shift. Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Virginia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. His campaign made it a top target in recognition of demographic shifts that have produced Democratic victories in two Senate and two races for governor in recent years. The ability of Democrats to win the gubernatorial race there this fall could be evidence of whether Obama's victory last year was part of a fundamental reshaping of the political map.

Obama took notice of the Democrats' situation in Virginia as he appeared with Deeds at a fund-raiser in McLean on Thursday evening.

“;Let's be honest: This is going to be a tough race,”; he told the crowd. While the state was “;moving in the right direction, it's still a purple state.”;

And it is increasingly looking like the Virginia race could be cast as a verdict on Obama as well. Sensing that Obama's popularity is ebbing and that voters are turning against him on issues like health care, Republicans are signaling that they want to frame the Virginia race in part as a referendum on Obama. McDonnell has been attacking his policies on spending and health care, putting Creeds in a position that would have seemed unimaginable four months ago: Having to distance himself from the president.

“;The odd feature here now is just how much the climate has changed in a year,”; said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “;It's the Republicans—Bob McDonnell—who are trying to nationalize the election by attempting to link Creigh Deeds with the national policies of the Democratic Party.”;

New Jersey may not offer as much of a national lesson as Virginia, unless the economy fails to show signs of improvement and Obama cannot get his health care proposal through Congress. The New Jersey race is more a contest about a strikingly unpopular incumbent, Corzine, besieged with questions about everything from a corruption investigation to his handling of property taxes.

“;Corzine's leadership on the economy is going to be the issue, the Republicans have shown they are going to attack him on that,”; Daschle said. “;But it's going to be what happened in New Jersey. It's not going to be about Obama or the health care plan.”;

If Republicans are seeking to put Obama on the ballot in Virginia, it is Democrats who are trying to do that in New Jersey. Obama won New Jersey by 15 points over Sen. John McCain; the state has not gone Republican in a presidential race since 1988. Still, twin victories by Republicans in November would almost surely be taken as a judgment on the first year of the Obama White House.

Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, has focused on the two races in the belief that winning New Jersey and Virginia would strengthen his own standing and help the party raise money and persuade Republicans who might be fearful about running to jump into the pool.

“;If you look at the issues on which Jon Corzine is doing poorly, they pre-date the Obama administration,”; said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey. “;It doesn't matter what we say or think: If Corzine loses it will be seen as an indictment of the Obama administration, and there's very little we can do to change that.”;

Andrea Fuller contributed reporting from McLean, Va.