The Trump factor dominates the final week of Virginia's governor's race

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Story highlights

  • In Virginia, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam faces Republican Ed Gillespie
  • President Donald Trump has yet to campaign for the GOP governor candidate

(CNN)Whether Ed Gillespie likes it or not, the Republican's fate in the Virginia governor's race is tied to President Donald Trump.

In a state that chooses a new governor every four years -- one year after the presidential election -- Trump was always going to be a dominant factor. But with two relatively bland candidates and a hyper-partisan national environment, Gillespie's campaign against Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has revolved even more than usual around the President.
Trump's popularity in Virginia mirrors his low national approval ratings. But Gillespie needs Trump's loyal base to turn out to vote. So he's adopted a strategy of airing ads that don't mention Trump but appeal directly to Trump's voters, warning of the MS-13 gangs and sanctuary cities, of which Virginia has none, and promising to keep up Confederate monuments.
    In person, though, Gillespie is loathe to even mention the President. He joined Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a wonky favorite of moderate and establishment Republicans, for a weekend event in northern Virginia. On Monday night he campaigned with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
    Trump himself, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen.
    It's unusual for a sitting President not to campaign for his party's candidate in Virginia. But in Trump's case, a week before the election, nothing has been scheduled.
    Gillespie has campaigned with Vice President Mike Pence. But neither Gillespie's campaign nor the White House would say whether his aides had even inquired to see whether Trump would be available.
    That's despite Trump spending 15 days at his Trump National Golf Course in Sterling, Virginia, after Gillespie won the state's Republican gubernatorial primary.
    "I would ask Ed Gillespie if he has such a great relationship with the President, you know, when is he going to invite President Trump to campaign with him here in Virginia?" Northam told CNN in an interview last week. "We're anxiously awaiting that."
    Asked that question, Gillespie was coy, leaving open the possibility of a last-minute Trump visit.
    "Well, you know, President Trump always says he doesn't disclose his military strategy for the enemies to know what we're going to be doing," he said. "I think that's a pretty good approach and I think I'm not going to disclose our campaign strategy for the Democrats to know what we're doing. We'll keep them guessing."
    Asked whether he'd be open to campaigning with Trump, Gillespie pointed to events with Pence and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and said of Trump: "I appreciate his support very much and, you know, I think the fact is obviously his supporters here are supporting me and I appreciate that very much and I'll take all the help I can get."
    "It's all hands on deck time here," he said.
    For Gillespie, Monday brought another Trump-related headache, as the President's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was indicted as part of special prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
    Gillespie and Manafort were once neighbors and worked closely together when Gillespie was chairman of the Republican National Committee. The connections invited a round of questions on a topic that won't help Gillespie's campaign close the polling gap.
    "Ed is confident the Department of Justice and our judicial system will handle this case appropriately," said Gillespie campaign spokesman David Abrams.
    A Quinnipiac University poll out Monday showed Northam with a 17-point lead over Gillespie, with 53% support to Gillespie's 36%. Northam's campaign doesn't believe its lead is that large, a source familiar with the campaign's thinking said, and other polls have shown a tighter race.
    But the Manafort issue -- which threatened to knock the governor's race out of the lead headlines in Virginia just a week before the November 7 election -- could freeze the race in place at just the right moment for Northam.
    Northam has struggled himself with the Trump factor.
    He has criticized the President's "Muslim ban," his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The state Democratic Party last week sent out mailers featuring Gillespie and Trump with an image of the tiki torch-carrying Charlottesville neo-Nazis.
    But Northam has tried to dial back some of his most incendiary rhetoric, which included calling Trump a "narcissistic maniac" during the Democratic primary.
    In his interview with CNN, Northam praised Trump for calling for an end to the spending cuts know as sequestration and pledged to work with Trump.
    "He wants to build up the military and we build the greatest warships and submarines right there in Newport News. You know, if he wants to do away with sequestration, that would be great for Virginia," Northam said.
    He criticized Trump for feuding with Gold Star families, saying "it's just an embarrassment to this country."
    "I do regret some of the things we're seeing come out of Washington, some of the policies," Northam said. "But again, if there are areas that we can work on like building up the military, I'm going to be there and do what's in the best interest of Virginia."
    In an effort to portray Northam as too liberal, Gillespie's efforts to highlight a new ad by the Latino Victory Fund, which his campaign said crosses lines.
    The ad features four minority children running from a Gillespie- and Trump-supporting man driving a truck with a Confederate flag through their neighborhood.
    Gillespie's campaign called it an "all-out attack on the people of Virginia" and accused pro-Northam forces of exploiting the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally for political purposes. A Republican National Committee spokesman said that "the Democrats' closing argument is that Virginians not supporting their candidate are racist neo-Nazi sympathizers who want to chase down and murder minority children."
    Northam's campaign shot back that Gillespie had run "the most divisive, fear mongering campaign in modern history" and that it's "not shocking that communities of color are scared of what his Trump-like policy positions mean for them."