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Opinion

Opinion

Virginia tests political waters

June 6, 2009

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— Rousing the Republican faithful, conservative commentator Sean Hannity and gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell both took their inspiration from the same words of Ronald Reagan, his 1975 call for a philosophy of bold colors, not pale pastels.

But the substance of their speeches, both of which drew enthusiastic cheers from the partisan crowd of 10,000 at the state Republican convention, differed considerably in tone.

Hannity aimed his most scathing rhetoric at Barack Obama and other top national Democratic leaders, listing an array of presidential missteps and deriding the president as “the anointed one.”

McDonnell avoided national and state personalities, vowing to change Democratic fiscal policies in Virginia and protect such conservative values as Second Amendment rights to own firearms and “born and unborn ... innocent human life.” He dwelt only briefly on social issues, stressing such safe goals as creating jobs and spurring energy independence by allowing offshore drilling.

“Sean Hannity really captures the message of the party as well as anybody,” said Dick Black, a former northern Virginia state legislator. “Bob is a good, solid conservative who is running a general election campaign that will appeal to a broad range of voters.”

Indeed, last Saturday’s back-to-back speeches vividly captured the differing approaches between the GOP’s ideological spokespeople and its political candidates. The latter, fearful of antagonizing swing voters, are trying to avoid the more flamboyant and polarizing approach of the Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs and conservative interest groups.

Top Senate Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, have displayed similar restraint in separating themselves from the more vehement conservative attacks on Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

And it’s been clear for some time in Virginia, where McDonnell, 54, a former military officer, prosecutor, legislator and attorney general with a consistently conservative record, is running low-key ads spotlighting his attractive family and stressing jobs.

He hopes to end eight years of Democratic rule and stop this red state’s slow transition to competitive purple. No Republican has been elected governor or senator since 2002, and Obama carried the state in November.

Along with New Jersey, where former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie won Tuesday’s GOP primary to oppose embattled Gov. Jon Corzine, Virginia heads the slim docket of off-year contests this November.

Since 1977, its governorship has been won by the party that lost the previous presidential election. Early polls show McDonnell leading all three Democratic candidates who meet in Tuesday’s primary.

Some Virginia Republicans are wary of the fundraising potential of the best-known Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, the former national Democratic chair. “He’s going to be tough because of the money,” said Mark Kirby, a southern Virginia law enforcement worker.

But late polling shows McAuliffe losing support after The Washington Post recommended one of his rivals, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. In any case, neither party will lack for resources, given the stakes.

And though most applaud McDonnell’s centrist approach, some conservatives warned him not to pull his conservative punches. Republicans will do well “as long as they stress conservative issues,” said Eugene Delgaudio, a prominent northern Virginia anti-tax activist.

Meanwhile, Republicans seemed split on whether to make the race about Obama, who carried the state by six points and remains popular. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore flatly called the race “a referendum on Barack Obama.”

But Jack Price, a retired Newport News aerospace executive, said he thought Democrats would benefit from the popularity of Obama and the past two Democratic governors, incumbent Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, now a U.S. senator.

“People like the status quo,” he said.

In any case, Virginia probably will be something of a political laboratory this year, both on whether Obama’s popularity will help other Democrats and on the best Republican approach to counter it.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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