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Some rural Virginia Dem candidates shunning Obama

Bob Lewis

A year before President Barack Obama hopes to carry battleground Virginia a second time, some of his party's legislative candidates in rural areas are abandoning the commander-in-chief.

With the president's disapproval rating topping 50 percent in Virginia and Republicans making the most of it in this year's state House and Senate races, Obama has become a liability for some lawmakers in conservative and rural areas of the state.

Democratic Sen. Philip Puckett said two weeks ago he would not support Obama in 2012, though he campaigned for him in 2008.

This week, Democratic House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong drew bright lines between himself and the White House in a campaign ad.

And Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, in a battle against Republican Sen. Bill Stanley, doesn't renounce Obama but clearly spells out his policy differences with him.

This comes barely a week before Obama is scheduled to visit Virginia. The president plans stops in Danville, Charlottesville, Newport News and Fredericksburg as part of bus tour touting his jobs legislation in Virginia and North Carolina, two states he won in the Republican-trending South to clench the presidency in 2008.

This time next year, Virginia Democrats will have to put 2011 aside and close ranks behind Obama if they hope he can win the state again. They also know that if Obama does poorly, it could affect other Democrats on the ticket, including former Gov. Tim Kaine, who hopes to keep Jim Webb's U.S. Senate seat in Democratic hands.

"I grant you, it's complicated," said David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Puckett said in a television interview Sept. 21 that he would not support Obama's re-election next year, blaming the administration's "cap-and-trade" energy bill that he said was hostile to the southwestern Virginia's coal industry. He made the remark after Republicans put up billboards depicting Puckett behind a lectern in 2008 campaigning for Obama.

Armstrong's new television ad opens noting that his Republican opponent, Del. Charles Poindexter, is comparing him with Obama.

In the ad, Armstrong scoffs, "That's a stretch, Charles. I'm pro-life, pro-gun, and I always put Virginia first. That's why I opposed the cap-and-trade bill."

Reynolds said in an Associated Press interview last week that he has established his own moderate record independent of the president's, one that has had the backing of his rural constituency for decades. He said claims by his Republican challenger, state Sen. Bill Stanley, are misleading.

It's a touchy subject for even the state's most popular Democrat.

"Virginians have always taken kind of an independent bent in legislative races," Sen. Mark R. Warner said during a telephone news conference Friday. "I'm not going to second-guess what state legislative candidates are doing or not doing four weeks out from legislative elections."

"I think there is enormous frustration with the lack of collaborative action in Washington," Warner said.

For Democrats who've stiff-armed their party's president, 2012 is not a concern, said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The first thing in politics is your own survival," Black said. "Rick Boucher's legacy for them is very real, and this is every guy for himself."

Boucher, a Democrat, had represented southwestern Virginia's 9th Congressional District since 1982 before he was upset by Republican Morgan Griffith last fall after being tied to Obama and his energy policies.

"If President Obama was pulling 85 percent approval ratings, those same people would be the first ones out front for him," Black said.

But because of 2011, it will be tougher for Virginia's Democratic Party to forgive and forget and present the unified front for Obama in 2012, Black said.

In an interview last week in his Martinsville law office, Armstrong said he's taking things one at a time.

"I am upset with Washington, but this is 2011. 2012 is next year. So I am concentrating on everything I can do to create jobs, to lower electrical utility rates and to do those things I can do in Richmond," Armstrong said.

Armstrong's battle is of no strategic significance in the House, where the GOP controls 60 of the 100 seats with no expectation that Democrats can erase that majority this year. But his battle carries symbolic significance.

A persistent and often sharp critic of House Republicans, Armstrong was singled out twice by the GOP. First, in redistricting, his longtime 10th House District was moved 200 miles north to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, forcing him to take on Poindexter in the Republican's 9th District. Then he was targeted by the GOP House leadership and Gov. Bob McDonnell, who have given generously to the Southside Victory Fund political action committee, known jokingly among Republicans as the Ward Armstrong Retirement Fund.

The two Senate races are strategically significant and being fought in ground friendly to conservatives. Democrats hold 22 of the Senate's 40 seats, and a net gain of two seats by the GOP would give them an operating majority because Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would hold the tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided chamber.

A three-seat pickup would give the GOP its first outright Senate majority since 2007, allowing Republican leaders to appoint Senate committees. It also would give McDonnell the fully allied Republican General Assembly he needs to enact the socially conservative agenda he campaigned on two years ago.

The Associated Press