Are the Dems giving up on Virginia? The lights aren’t out yet, but Kerry move seems to signal the end

The Top Story by Chris Graham

The summer of 2004 was the best time in a long time to be a Democrat in Virginia.

The polls had presidential candidate John Kerry within shouting distance of George Bush, for one thing.

Kerry, sensing the possibility of an upset in the heart of what Republicans throatily consider Bush Country, devoted resources to the Old Dominion that the Dems hadn’t seen here from a national candidate since the days of Hubert Humphrey.

To put things in perspective, the Al Gore campaign had exactly one paid staffer based in the Commonwealth in 2000. The Kerry team had 33.

The talk was of bringing Virginia into the blue column for Kerry – and ending the party’s 40-year drought in presidential politics.

Alas, the halcyon days are over.

“It wasn’t at all surprising that they pulled out. The support that they were hoping for never really materialized,” Bush-Cheney state director Ken Hutcheson told The Augusta Free Press in the wake of the news from this past weekend that the Kerry campaign had reassigned 21 people from its Virginia staff to locales including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada.

The news came as a bit of a shocker – given that the race in Virginia was seen to be tightening up even before the Sept. 30 presidential debate that gave Kerry a bit of a bounce nationally.

According to the Washington, D.C.,-based Mason-Dixon polling firm, Kerry trailed Bush by a 49-43 margin in surveys conducted by the pollsters between Sept. 24 and Sept. 27.

The six-point margin is the closest that the race has been in the Mason-Dixon polling to date, said Larry Harris, a principal in the Mason-Dixon firm.

The race in Virginia, Harris told the AFP, is also closer than the contest in any other Southern state, save Florida, whose large population of retirees from all over the country skews its politics away from resembling the rest of the South much if at all.

So why make the move?

The “redeployment,” as Democratic Party of Virginia spokesperson Laura Bland termed the shift, came in the wake of the first presidential debate between Kerry and Bush last week in Florida, Bland said.

Kerry’s showing in the debate led to a surge for his candidacy in the national polls – leading to the decision of those in the campaign hierarchy to refocus resources on states like West Virginia, traditionally a Democratic-leaning state that was won by Bush in 2000.

“There’s a misperception that the Kerry-Edwards campaign has given up on Virginia. That’s certainly not the case,” Bland told the AFP.

“It’s important for people to know that we in the state party totally support the decision to redeploy staff,” Bland said. “Ultimately, a Kerry victory nationally is important to us here in Virginia. Regardless of how things turn out in Virginia on Nov. 2, it is important to us that Kerry get elected. If that means that some of our staff members have to be redeployed to other state campaigns, we totally support that.

“We can see the big picture, and the big picture is a Kerry win in November,” Bland said.

But what about Virginia Democrats who were energized at the prospects of an upset win on Nov. 2?

“I don’t think it changes anything. It was going to be an uphill battle no matter how things worked out,” said Matt Smyth of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“As we’ve talked about before, for Kerry to win Virginia would likely mean that he was on his way to a national landslide with between 30 and 35 states in his column,” Smyth told the AFP.

“This election isn’t trending right now for a landslide by either candidate. Perhaps Kerry, if he wins the final two debates, could begin to pull away. But it’s going to be hard to count the president out, given his successes in the past.

“That all said, this is a natural progression for the Kerry campaign. They’d already pulled their advertising. Now they’re reallocating resources to states like West Virginia and Wisconsin where they feel they can be put to better use,” Smyth said.

Even with the staff cuts, Democrats are not writing Virginia off – “The challenge now, as always, is on getting out the vote,” Bland said, “and we’re energized and ready to do what it takes to bring Virginia into the John Kerry and John Edwards column on Election Day.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Virginia Republicans aren’t cuing up the celebration music just yet, either.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Shawn Smith told the AFP.

“We’re not going to rest. The Bush campaign in Virginia has a lot of work to do between now and Election Day,” Hutcheson said. “We will be focusing our efforts, as we have been all throughout this campaign, on making sure that the Bush-Cheney message gets out to voters, and then that we get the vote out on Nov. 2.”

That we’re hearing that kind of talk from both parties is not surprising at all, Harris said.

“Six points ain’t a lot, considering that it’s Virginia, and that Virginia has voted Republican for a long, long time at the presidential level,” Harris said.

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