Salena Zito
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WINCHESTER, Va. – Virginia will be the center of political attention this fall, thanks to the first statewide election in a battleground state since the 2008 presidential election.

“Here we go again,” said Larry Larsen, an independent voter accustomed to the national attention that Virginia races attract.

November’s gubernatorial race matches former state attorney general Bob McDonnell, a Republican, versus state senator Creigh Deeds, a Democrat.

A SurveyUSA poll last week gave McDonnell a 15-point lead. RealClearPolitics shows McDonnell as 6.3 percentage points in the lead, based on aggregate polling data.

“If McDonnell were to win this, the message it sends back to Washington is to slow down,” said John Morrison, a Deeds supporter.

Morrison was busy planning a fundraiser for his candidate last week while taking orders at Piccadilly Print Shop, a business he has owned for more than 25 years.

Larsen, a stockbroker and father of six, leans Republican. His issues, not surprisingly, hinge on the economy: “My income is not what it was last year, and right now it seems that none of the spending solutions are working.”

Both Virginia and New Jersey will hand a report card of sorts to President Obama and the Democrats controlling Congress with their governor’s races this fall. Both are leaning toward Republican wins, but in politics, anything can change.

For about 40 years, since Richard Nixon's 1968 run, Northern Virginia favored Republicans until it began shifting to Democrats in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

Located near Washington, D.C., it is home to lots of tech companies and their employees, along with a healthy proportion of people who work in government (and government has been expanding since Obama became president) and who lean left.

The Virginia Beach and Richmond areas also have favored Republicans since Nixon. Unlike their northern cousins, people in those areas have become redder.

Obama's victory in Virginia was hugely related to high black voter turnout, especially in the Virginia Beach area. If that voting bloc does not show up for Deeds, he is in trouble.

It does not help him that the nation’s first elected black governor, Virginia’s Douglas Wilder, is cool to him – so much so that Wilder told the Washington Times last week that Deeds risked becoming a “me too” candidate. Wilder then complimented McDonnell for reaching out to Virginians who don't traditionally vote Republican.

Despite a push from the White House, Wilder is miles from endorsing Deeds. While McDonnell has made numerous calls on the former governor, Deeds will have his first meeting with Wilder sometime this week.

McDonnell is well-positioned as a state official. He beat Deeds for the attorney general’s job by about 300 votes in 2005, in what was a more favorable year for Democrats. (Hurricane Katrina had hit and wiped out Bush's approval ratings, just as the Iraq War’s unpopularity heated up and Social Security reform fell apart).

Obama’s 2008 victory in Virginia, while impressive, was many years in the making, built on demographic changes and the election of three Democrats – U.S. senators Mark Warner (also a former governor) and Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine. They were successful because they built a new brand for Democrats, one that was fiscally responsible and focused on improving people’s lives rather than on divisive social issues.

That begs a question: With a healthy party brand and three popular Democrats in statewide leadership, why is Deeds languishing in the polls?

“Washington’s policies, plain and simple,” said Philip Charles, a retired D.C. firefighter from Front Royal, Va. “Obama’s charisma won this state last fall. His policies may cost his party a seat in the governor’s mansion this fall.”

Charles, another independent, is both under- and overwhelmed by what Congress has put on the table since January: “It is too much. People wanted change – well, they got it, and now they want to stop it.”

With its counter-cyclical election, Virginia is poised to serve as a check on government’s role in everyday life, its expansion and its spending.

Part of Deeds’ problem is that voters are exhausted after 2008’s “change” hype and discouraged because they don't feel that things are getting better – changing – fast enough.

The 2010 mid-term elections will hinge on the economy and on spending. Either the economy roars back and Democrats can claim they made the difference or 2010 could be another 1982, when Ronald Reagan took a mid-term hit because the economy had not yet pulled out of its recession.

One thing is certain: No way will the economy be better this November, when Virginia and New Jersey vote – and when it comes to the relationship between politics and the economy, jobs matter more than all other measures.

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Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.