PURCELLVILLE, Va. -- Just a year after this one-time Confederate state helped elect a black man president, Democrats are desperately trying to hang onto the governorship.
A lot has changed: Loyal Democrats are more subdued than last fall. Republicans are energized. Independents are proving to be ... independent. Voters of all kinds seem disenchanted.
Just like Americans nationwide.
The contest between Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds provides a snapshot of sorts - 12 months after America elected Barack Obama as president and expanded Democratic majorities in Congress, and one year before midterm elections in every state.
And the picture, in Virginia as in the nation, is not pretty for Democrats.
Republicans are far more fired up than Democrats, and independents who leaned left just a year ago are tilting away. Frustration over the status quo, fear of the country's direction, and disillusionment about political leaders span the ideological spectrum.
"I'm disgusted by everything. We couldn't be at a worse place in this country," said Maria Taylor, a waitress in Purcellville's small business district. She calls herself an independent and hasn't decided whom to support as Virginia's next governor.
At the nearby hardware store, fellow undecided voter Cary Koppie, a one-man mowing company, is so angry he says he may sit out this election. "They're all a bunch of liars," he said. "You don't know who the heck to vote for anymore."
Two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, polls show McDonnell, a former state attorney general, leading Deeds, a former state legislator, by nearly double digits. After two terms of Democrats at the helm, voters may again be craving change. Every four years since 1997, Virginia has chosen the candidate of the opposite party from the one that controls the White House.
Prospects appear better for Democrats in New Jersey, where embattled Gov. Jon Corzine is in a close race with Republican Chris Christie in this year's other governor's race. Corzine is favored to win; it's a Democratic-leaning state and independent Chris Daggett is sucking support from both parties.
Obama will be campaigning for Corzine on Wednesday and has stops lined up for Deeds, too, before Election Day.
The outcomes won't predict next year's midterm results. So much could change. Jobs could return. Health care overhaul could pass. War in Afghanistan could be winding down. People could feel better about where the country is heading.
But given Virginia's newfound swing-voting behavior, the McDonnell-Deeds outcome will be a key measure of how America feels and, perhaps more importantly, how independent voters are acting ahead of the 2010 elections. Independents will be critical as Democrats try to protect their majorities in Congress and pick up governorships in a number of states.
Here in Virginia, as well as in the wider U.S., Republican crossover voters and independents are breaking from the Democrats, partly because they're put off by Obama's government expansion and expensive policy proposals like health care. The question in Virginia is how they'll split between McDonnell and Deeds - if they turn out at all.
"Neither one of them makes me particularly excited," said Dale Thompson, a gun-shop owner who shuns party labels and thinks "society's a mess." Still, he's supporting McDonnell - "the least evil of the bunch."
Down the street, toy-store owner Bill Lupinacci, 51, a Republican who backed Democrat Tim Kaine for governor in 2006 and Obama in 2008, is undecided - and turned off by both the candidates for the state's top office. "They're spending most of their time on attack ads rather than putting forth their positions on the issues."
McDonnell has been forced to defend his graduate school thesis from 20 years ago that criticized career women, gays and cohabiting unmarried couples. Deeds has drawn criticism for repeatedly refusing to specify how he would raise the $1 billion a year needed to revive critical transportation projects.
The race also is an important test of whether the droves of base Democratic voters - the blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women, young people and first-time voters whom Obama attracted last fall - will turn out and support a Democrat if the president is not on the ballot.
Some are certain not to cast votes this fall because only the most motivated people turn out in off-year elections.
There also are indications that some Virginians who made up the president's diverse winning coalition were enthusiastic Obama 2008 voters, not reliable Democratic Party voters, and perhaps not even Obama 2012 voters, should he run for re-election as expected. That would mean they would be up for grabs come 2010.
Consider Jake Crocker, a self-employed marketing consultant who owns Richmond's Easy Street cafe. He backed Obama and said he'd gladly do so again. But he's voting for Republican McDonnell because he sees similarities to pro-business Democrat Mark Warner, the former governor and now senator. "He's a guy who gets it," Crocker said of McDonnell.
Conversely, Eddie DuRant, an environmental consultant in Virginia Beach who supported Obama a year ago, recently decided to vote for Deeds. DuRant was swayed by McDonnell's graduate thesis, saying, "It appears he has an ultraconservative social agenda that is not in line with what I believe."
Places like Purcellville in Loudoun County, a sprawling swath to the west of Washington, could provide clues to voter attitudes in other swing-voting places in battleground states: Arapahoe County in suburban Denver, Anoka County near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Westmoreland County near Pittsburgh, Jefferson County near St. Louis.
Around here, farmland, country manors and a bevy of loyal GOP voters have given way to shopping centers, subdivisions and a mishmash of Republicans, Democrats and independents in recent years. Loudoun County's rapid growth has changed its politics; the area has become a critical front in statewide elections.
Long a reliably Republican bastion, this is where Democrats first felt the start of a national political sea change in 2005. Their gubernatorial candidate, Kaine, won the county and the race. It proved to be a harbinger for 2006 when Democrats, fueled by huge gains in counties like Loudoun, won one Virginia Senate seat, and 2008, when they claimed the second while voting for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.
This county and others nearby are expected to push either McDonnell or Deeds over the top - and give important clues about the country's collective state of mind.
Bob Lewis reported from Richmond.
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