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Governors races serve as early test for Obama, Democratic control

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Deputy Political Director
President Obama campaigned for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine in Hackensack on Wednesday.
President Obama campaigned for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine in Hackensack on Wednesday.
  • In Virginia, polls show Democrat Creigh Deeds trailing Republican Bob McDonnell
  • "I have made the national issues an issue in this race," McDonnell told CNN
  • New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is in a dead heat with GOP challenger
  • How the economy fares over the next year will be significant for incumbents

Washington (CNN) -- Even though President Obama is not on the ballot this November, he and the Democrats who control Congress have a lot on the line.

Among the many contests being voted on in a little more than week, two statewide battles for governor are grabbing a lot of national attention.

The president heads back on the campaign trail in Virginia on Tuesday, not for himself but for fellow Democrat gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds. Recent polls suggest Deeds, a state senator from the rural western part of Virginia, trails his Republican opponent, former Virginia attorney general Bob McDonnell.

While the contest in Virginia focuses on state issues and the two candidates themselves, it's also seen by some as an early ballot box test, or referendum, on the Obama White House and the policies it's pushing.

"The race in Virginia is partially about the broad national environment, how the two political parties are doing, and how the president is doing," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

McDonnell's campaign appears to be trying to nationalize the contest by linking Deeds to the Democrats who control the White House and Congress. A McDonnell television ad says "Creigh Deeds supports Washington's job-killing policies."

"I have made the national issues an issue in this race," McDonnell told CNN's Jessica Yellin.

At a debate last month, Deeds was asked by the moderator if he was a "Barack Obama Democrat."

"I would try to escape that by saying I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat," responded Deeds, who also acknowledges that "a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough."

Democrats have made major gains in Virginia this decade. Last November, Obama became the first Democrat to win the state in a presidential election in 40 years.

The party has won back both of Virginia's U.S. Senate seats and come out on top in the past two gubernatorial elections. But the current governor, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, is term-limited and prevented for running again.

If they win back the governor's office, "the Republicans could now show they are alive and well and they are competitive in Virginia, but it also sends a national message about the Republicans' ability to come back in the Obama era," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

Democrats also control the other governor's seat up this year.

"I have made the national issues an issue in this race."
--Bob McDonnell, Virginia gubernatorial candidate

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine is fighting for a second term and for his political life. Corzine trailed his Republican challenger, former New Jersey federal prosecutor Chris Christie, in polls during the summer but has pulled even in just about all recent surveys. Growing support for independent candidate Chris Daggett may be a major contributing factor.

Obama teamed up with Corzine on the campaign trail last week and the president is expected back in New Jersey just two days before election day.

With the economy fighting to escape from recession, the climate is tough for any incumbent. Corzine has the misfortune of being the only governor facing re-election this year.

"The New Jersey race is about Governor Corzine's performance. It's about the state's economy and jobs. In this regard the governor is on the hook and that's why the election is overwhelmingly a referendum on his performance," Rothenberg said.

And if the economy doesn't rebound strongly in the first half of 2010, incumbent governors, senators and representatives up for re-election could find themselves in a similar situation a year from now.

If the Republicans grab back the seat in New Jersey, or Virginia, they will claim that the results are a reflection on the Obama White House. And they'll say that the results in '09 are a taste of things to come in 2010, when the Democrats have to defend their majorities in the Senate, House and governors' offices across the country.

That was the case in 1993 and 1994, but history was not repeated in 2001 and 2002. The book on 2009 and 2010 is still open.