Dems sweep races in Va., N.J.

GOP gubernatorial losses seen as jolt to Bush influence


WASHINGTON -- Democrats swept elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey yesterday, dealing a fresh blow to President Bush's flagging political fortunes.

Democrat Tim Kaine's solid victory in the Virginia governor's contest was a particularly stinging rebuke to Bush, who put his reputation on the line with an election-eve campaign stop in a state he carried by 9 percentage points just one year ago.

In New Jersey, a reliably Democratic state, freshman Sen. Jon Corzine trounced another millionaire businessman after the most expensive campaign - and one of the nastiest - in state history. Corzine must now appoint someone to fill the remaining year of his Senate term.

The elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the only states picking new governors this year, did not result in a change of party control in either case. And off-year elections can be unreliable predictors of midterm elections that are still 12 months away, as political scientists pointed out.

Still, the returns seemed certain to be interpreted as the latest negative verdict on the president's increasingly shaky standing with voters.

The Democratic victory in Virginia was "one more sign of the declining influence of the president, particularly since he made this dramatic last-minute appearance," said Robert Holsworth, a Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist, referring to Bush's speech to a raucous rally Monday night in Richmond, the state capital.

Bush's job approval ratings are at the lowest point in his presidency, amid an unpopular war in Iraq and following the recent indictment of a senior White House aide.

His fading popularity in Virginia might have helped drag down the Republican candidate, former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. Republicans won or were leading in the other two statewide offices on the ballot, an indication that some voters used the governor's race to send a message of dissatisfaction with Bush by voting for Democrat Kaine, 47, the state's lieutenant governor.

The results were also a major boost for the presidential aspirations of popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who was barred by state law from seeking a second term.

Kaine tied his candidacy closely to Warner, who campaigned extensively around the state for the lieutenant governor and asked voters to elect him as a way of extending the Warner administration for four more years.

At Kaine's victory celebration last night in Richmond, supporters chanted "'08! '08!" as Warner joined Kaine onstage and boasted about how much better "things are going in Virginia" than in Washington, in an oblique reference to Bush and the Republicans.

Another Virginian with presidential ambitions failed to get a similar lift in the election. Republican Sen. George Allen campaigned hard for Kilgore, whose candidacy never bounced back after a spate of TV attack ads that criticized Kaine's opposition to the death penalty.

Democratic Party leaders were quick to claim that Virginia and New Jersey were a preview of the 2006 midterm elections, when control of Congress will be on the ballot.

"These candidates showed exactly what our party is going to do to stand up and win in 2006," national Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement.

But history indicates that off-year contests in Virginia and New Jersey are often over-interpreted - and frequently turn out to be misleading indicators of a national election that is still a full year away.

In 1997, victories in the New Jersey and Virginia governor's contests by the party out of power in the White House failed to translate into pickups in House and Senate races the following November, the sixth year of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Democrats are hoping that 2005 will be a rerun of 1993, when victories by the "out" party candidates in New Jersey and Virginia were followed a year later by a midterm election that put a new majority party in charge in Congress.

Anticipating defeat, Republicans had said the '05 elections reflected local issues and candidates, rather than national trends. But an aggressive last-minute push by the national Republican Party in Virginia belied those words.

Bush's Virginia campaign stop attracted a huge crowd and was designed to energize the party's conservative base. A parade of prominent Republican functionaries, led by national party Chairman Ken Mehlman, spent the final days of the campaign crisscrossing state, where an army of party workers fanned out into neighborhoods and polling places to turn out the Republican vote.

In New Jersey, where Bush stayed away from the campaign, his name was featured in attack ads run by Corzine, who attempted to tie his Republican opponent, Douglas R. Forrester, to the president. Bush's popularity is low in the state, which he lost by 7 percentage points to Democrat John Kerry last year.

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