GOP Hopes for Gubernatorial Wins

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) - Republicans are dreaming big in the
swamps of New Jersey and the rural outposts of Virginia.

After crushing losses at all levels of government in
back-to-back elections, the GOP has pinned its hopes on the only
major contests this year - governors' races in two states that
Democrats control. Downtrodden Republicans hope victories this fall
will revive the party heading into crucial congressional elections
in 2010.

The GOP has suffered a series of setbacks, including coming up
short in a special election in a Republican-leaning upstate New
York congressional district, since last fall's drubbing at the
hands of now-President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.

Prospects in New Jersey and Virginia seem promising for
competitive races this fall, even though Obama is popular in both
states. Six months ago, he won New Jersey by 15 percentage points
over Republican Sen. John McCain, and he became the first Democrat
since 1964 to carry Virginia.

Nonetheless, independent analysts say Republicans have a real
chance in both governors' races.

"Statewide politics are different than national, and there is
no George W. Bush to drag down the Republican Party this time
around," said Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs at
Virginia's Roanoke College. "There's no question the Republican
Party itself is suffering nationally, but in both of these states
Republicans do have a chance to break free."

In New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine is considered so
vulnerable that national Democratic groups are spending millions on
television ads to influence the outcome of the state's GOP primary
June 2.

A series of polls has shown Corzine trailing Republican Chris
Christie, a former U.S. attorney under Bush. Corzine, who made
millions as a Wall Street executive and was a U.S. senator, is
coping with record low approval ratings as he struggles to close a
multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

As a prosecutor, Christie won praise for cracking down on
corruption - an accomplishment that get noticed in a state that's
seen a fair share of crimes and malfeasance - and for successfully
prosecuting two major terrorism cases. He says he's convicted 130
politicians and public employees.

Christie has raised the maximum campaign cash allowed for the
primary and earned the backing of nearly all the state's GOP
establishment.

But he first must thwart a feisty challenge from Steve Lonegan,
a former mayor of Bogota, which is about 15 miles north of Newark.
Lonegan is a conservative with a following among many right-leaning
GOP primary voters. A recent Quinnipiac University poll put
Christie ahead of Lonegan by 23 points, but several strategists
believe the race is much closer.

Enter the Democratic Governors Association, which teamed with
allied groups this past week on a $1 million ad campaign contending
that Christie is not exactly the ethical champion he claims to be.

At issue are out-of-court settlements Christie brokered with
companies suspected of white-collar crime, and lucrative no-bid
contracts he awarded to prominent lawyers to monitor the
settlements. The lawyers included former U.S. Attorney General John
Ashcroft, who received a $27 million contract, and David Kelley, a
federal prosecutor who two years ago declined to prosecute
Christie's brother for stock fraud.

The DGA media campaign hits Christie on the contracts and notes
that he's been asked to appear before a U.S. House Judiciary
subcommittee next month to discuss the matter.

"Congressional investigators want answers from Chris
Christie," the DGA ad says.

In an interview, Christie said the association's involvement
means it "must be pretty scared of me."

He added, "I think it should tell our Republican Party, not
only should you vote for me because of the principles I've
expounded and the record I've created ... I'm the guy the Democrats
nationally fear most."

In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who also is the current
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, must step down after
one term under state law.

Republicans are heartened that they don't have a primary on
their hands.

Bob McDonnell, the popular state attorney general, has a hefty
bank account and a clear path to the GOP nomination. Polls show him
leading all three of his potential Democratic rivals, who are
competing in an increasingly fierce June 9 primary.

They are former state House Democratic Caucus leader Brian
Moran; state Sen. Creigh Deeds; and Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC
chairman who counts Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton as close
friends.

McAuliffe's celebrity connections and fundraising prowess have
brought significant national attention to the race. That's made him
a target of his Democratic rivals. Polls show McAuliffe edging into
a lead with as much as one-third of the primary electorate still
undecided.

McAuliffe, a multimillionaire businessman, sought to make a big
impression from the start. Early in the race, he went on television
across the state with ads to define himself. He has had former
President Clinton and celebrities such as singer will.i.am campaign
for him. McAuliffe has raised more than $5 million, compared with
nearly $3 million for Moran and just over $2 million for Deeds.

Moran is well-known in populous northern Virginia and has deep
family connections in the state. His brother, Jim Moran, is a
10-term member of Congress from Alexandria, just outside
Washington.

Deeds has run statewide before, narrowly losing the attorney
general's race to McDonnell four years ago. Deeds is from rural
western Virginia and is more conservative than his Democratic
rivals.

In their final debate this past week, the candidates' closing
pitches illustrated the central dynamic of the race: Moran and
Deeds cast themselves as proven leaders while McAuliffe channeled
Obama's call for change and bipartisanship.

"If you're looking for someone to go to Richmond and shake it
up, think outside of the box with a business background who is
willing to ... bring the new fight down there," McAuliffe said.

As national chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid,
McAuliffe campaigned hard against Obama in the primary but
supported him in the general election and now mentions the
president every chance he gets.

Moran is trying to counter McAuliffe's efforts to link himself
to Obama, running a radio ad in heavily black areas of the state
reminding voters of his rival's connections to Hillary Clinton and
unleashing a TV ad that says: "Barack Obama ran against exactly
the kind of big-money politics that McAuliffe represents."

Political observers suggest a low primary turnout would benefit
Moran or Deeds, while a larger turnout would help McAuliffe, who is
trying to attract new voters as Obama did.

Democrats haven't held a gubernatorial primary in Virginia since
1977. Since then, the state has changed dramatically, with the
Democratic-leaning Washington suburbs and the Tidewater area
experiencing a population boom that has nudged the state to the
left.

Even so, Roanoke College's Wilson said: "This is a relatively
conservative state and I'm not convinced Republicans are completely
out of touch here."


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