Voters go to the polls in Virginia on Nov. 3 to elect a new governor. Democrats have held the governorship for the past eight years, but Republicans think they can recapture it by focusing on transportation and education issues. National politics are also a factor.
The Democrats have had quite a run in Virginia. After years of Republican dominance, they've won the past two governor races and now hold both Senate seats.
Last year, for the first time since 1964, Virginia went Democratic in the presidential election. But the party's candidate for governor, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, is struggling.
Polls show him about 10 points behind his rival, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who has been hammering Deeds for not ruling out a tax increase and for being too close to Washington.
On Tuesday, McDonnell had this to say in a debate in Roanoke: "I believe a governor needs to stand up to Washington. I will be a governor who will stand up and say, 'That's not good for Virginia.' My opponent and his Washington allies that want to raise taxes won't do that."
At times Deeds has seemed uncertain about how closely to embrace the president and his party in Washington. He refuses to call himself an Obama Democrat.
At a forum sponsored by Politico earlier this month, Deeds said, "Frankly, a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough because people were just uncomfortable with the spending; they were uncomfortable with a lot of what was going on, a lot of the noise that was coming out of Washington, D.C."
But Deeds has been on the attack as well. For weeks, he ran ads about McDonnell's conservative social views, focusing on a master's thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago while a grad student at Regent University, the school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
In the thesis, McDonnell said, among other things, that government policy should favor married couples over "co-habitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
At a Chamber of Commerce debate in September, McDonnell said he had changed his mind about some of those issues — particularly working women.
"Here's my wife and daughter. I've told you I support working women. I'm frankly pretty insulted that you would say to my daughter, that I supported and loved for 28 years, to go fight in Iraq, that I don't support working women," McDonnell said.
With less than two weeks to go, the race is all about turnout. Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis says his party has one big advantage: George W. Bush is no longer in office. Plus, Barack Obama is not on the ballot.
So Davis hopes Democrats will be less motivated to come out and vote. "With Bush gone at this point, he was the energy source for Democrats in terms of donations, turnout and voter motivation. He's gone. They got rid of him. So they're complacent," he said.
Davis added, "Republicans now, who were kind of embarrassed under Bush, are now angry at what they see: possible higher taxes, more regulation from Washington. So you're going to have a completely different electorate on Nov. 3 for Virginia than you had for president last year."
The latest Washington Post poll suggests Davis may be right .
Only half of the Virginians who went for President Obama last year say they are certain to vote next month. But two-thirds of John McCain's Virginia voters said they will turn out. That means Deeds may have an enthusiasm problem.
"You've identified the reason that we are working so hard to turn out our vote," said Richard Cranwell, the state Democratic Party Chairman. "By the time that Election Day is here, the Obama folks are going to be as energized as the McCain folks were."
And Deeds campaign manager Joe Abbey said they've targeted a half-million Democratic surge voters — the ones who put the state in the blue column for Obama last year.
"That's the key to the election for us," Abbey said. "How can we get them out and get them to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 3. And I think that's kind of why we've been calling them our sleeping giants. I mean, you know, they're not showing up in the polls, but if they show up at the polls on Election Day, then it will be game over."
Deeds' campaign is trying to activate the same voter lists and volunteer army that Obama used to win in the state.
Deeds also has been getting some high-powered outside help — including former President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for Deeds on Tuesday: "This man deserves to be the next governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Next week, to the great relief of the Deeds campaign, the current occupant of the White House will finally come across the Potomac River and do the same.
"This election is about bringing opportunity and prosperity and hope to every corner of the commonwealth," Deeds said. "Now there's a certain president we've got today who knows a little bit about hope."
Obama is still popular in Virginia, and his visit may help Deeds energize all those African Americans and under-30 voters who turned out in record numbers last year.
But Deeds and the president will be bucking a strong historical trend: Since 1977, the party in the White House has always lost the governors race in Virginia.