Some Republicans say John McCain is in danger of becoming their party's first presidential candidate since 1964 to lose Virginia because he hasn't put enough stress on issues such as illegal immigration, gay marriage and abortion.
No, no, say other Republicans: McCain is heading toward the worst GOP showing in Virginia since Barry Goldwater's because he and the party have strayed from the core principles that have lured moderates for decades - lower taxes and less government spending.
Well, maybe, says a third set of Republicans, but the main problem has been that McCain has run an unfocused, low-energy campaign that comes off as sniping and negative, especially to independent voters.
What all three Republican perspectives share is the view that McCain's effort in Virginia is sputtering. McCain made his first visit of the year to Prince William County this weekend, and he and running mate Sarah Palin visited Richmond and Virginia Beach last Monday. This burst of attention may be too little, too late.
"I literally begged the campaign to have McCain or Palin visit," says Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "Prince William and Loudoun are the swing counties where this election will be won or lost. This is the battleground, and Obama and Biden have been here four times."
Stewart, who won statewide notice by pushing for his county's tough enforcement drive against illegal immigrants, says McCain has done himself and the party a disservice by steering clear of that issue. "But the reality is that McCain has never been strong on this issue," Stewart says, "and his differences with Obama on it are not very big." McCain has alienated some conservatives by proposing to let illegal immigrants stay here as guest workers and earn U.S. citizenship.
Although the emotional power of the issue has dissipated in Prince William - Stewart says that's because the get-tough policy is working and many immigrants have left the county - he's confident that a presidential candidate who emphasized a crackdown would be rewarded with victory in Virginia.
State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli from Fairfax County, who largely agrees with Stewart on immigration, nonetheless argues that that's exactly the wrong kind of issue to stress in an election that will be won by reaching toward the center.
"You have to focus on what unites you," Cuccinelli says. "McCain is so far out there on this issue from the conservative base's perspective that you'd end up fighting with your own people rather than bringing in new people."
Del. Jeffrey Frederick of Prince William, who is chairman of the state Republican Party, argues that "immigration and the other social issues aren't really what people are thinking about right now."
"People care about those issues, deeply, but when they're driving home, they're not thinking about how to stop people from having abortions, they're thinking about the traffic and how to get home faster," Frederick says. He says McCain's mistake has been to be "all over the map on the issues. The key is to focus on very few issues and hit them relentlessly. Right now, that's the economy, health care and taxes."
(Frederick didn't help McCain's cause last week with a remark comparing Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden. The comment, which Frederick later said was meant as a joke, sparked denunciations from leading state Republicans.)
McCain's poor showing in recent Virginia polls has the party arguing over how to stem a tide of Democratic successes. In a state that the GOP controlled a little more than a decade ago, Democrats have won two straight governor's races, a U.S. Senate seat, and one house of the legislature; next month, they might add the other Senate seat and two or more House seats.
The battle for the state Republican Party's future is already shaping up. On one side, people such as Stewart and Prince William supervisor John Stirrup, who launched the drive against illegal immigrants, will push to "make this the front-burner issue that it is in voters' lives," as Stirrup says. "Honestly, I think it would have been an effective issue in this presidential race," he says. "Statewide, going forward, I don't see how you can avoid it."
Stewart intends to make the topic unavoidable. "After the election, I'm going back on the road to get more counties to do what we have done in Prince William," he says.
Prince William commissioned a study of county residents' views in the wake of the crackdown on illegal immigrants. The results show that whites, blacks and Asians are happier than ever, but Hispanics for the first time in the survey's history gave markedly lower grades on the quality of life in Prince William.
The ethnic gap was especially deep when residents were asked about the police department: Although 95 percent of Asians and 93 percent of non-Hispanic whites said they're satisfied with county police, only 84 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics reported satisfaction.
Stewart argues that Hispanics who are here legally will come around when they see the economic and social benefits of the crackdown and the resulting exodus of illegal immigrants from the county. That, he says, will boost Republicans who emphasize the issue.
But Cuccinelli, despite his own strong conservatism, warns that the only way the GOP can hold its own in Virginia is to "stop mentally writing off whole sections of Fairfax because we think they've moved to the left. As the population in a district shifts, the party has to be more open to candidates who reflect that district."
That's next year's debate. For now, Cuccinelli says: "I'm voting to avoid my worst concerns about Obama rather than pursuing my highest hopes. If that doesn't work out, the world won't come to an end. I'm not going to offer to move to Canada and then renege."
Fisher is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section.
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