For Dems in Virginia and New Jersey, victory may come from going negative

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has spent months attacking former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R), taking shots at everything from his policies to his record to his personal behavior and weight.

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Meanwhile, in Virginia, state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D is pursuing his own attack strategy, hammering former Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) for a thesis McDonnell wrote while a student at Regent University, in which he made controversial statements about working women.

And the negative attacks appear to have borne fruit for the Democratic candidates.

The latest Quinnipiac University survey, released Wednesday, shows as many voters have an unfavorable impression of Christie as have a favorable image of him.

Just two months ago, Christie boasted a 16-point net favorable rating.

Still, the same poll showed just a third of Garden State voters have a favorable view of Corzine, while a whopping 56 percent said they see him unfavorably. Christie leads Corzine by a 43 percent-to-39 percent margin in that survey.

“They’ve just stopped worrying about how people feel about Jon Corzine and focused on making Chris Christie as unpleasant and unelectable as possible,” said one Democratic consultant who asked not to be named. “And it’s worked. Now both of those guys are upside down.”

Corzine’s internal polls, another Democratic operative said, have shown him hovering in the high 30s, a disastrous place for an incumbent. The only way for him to win, many agree, is for voters to refuse to vote for either Corzine or Christie and instead cast a ballot for Independent candidate Chris Daggett.

“If voters get the impression that voting for Daggett is a way to avoid voting for one of the two other guys, then he becomes the spoiler in all this,” the consultant mused. “That may be the piece of the puzzle that helps Corzine get reelected.”

In Virginia, Democratic strategists worry that Deeds is still trying to move the Democratic base and woo voters, specifically in Northern Virginia, who should already be in his column. As McDonnell tries to appeal to independent voters, Deeds could be falling behind while he talks to Democrats.

But new polls show the race tightening, with Deeds making inroads among female voters and in emerging Democratic territory in Northern Virginia, two sectors of the electorate that have reacted most negatively to the McDonnell’s graduate thesis, which expressed ideas such as that working women and feminists are  “detrimental” to the family unit.

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“Women are the real brass ring in Virginia, because that’s where the battleground is. Deeds has been doing better among women, and that’s what’s allowed him to start making some movement. Now it’s a question of whether there’s enough time for Deeds to finish getting the message out there,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.

Nevins said the statements McDonnell offered in his thesis are “the image of Bob McDonnell that the Deeds campaign wants independent voters and women to see every day for the next 30 days.”

The Deeds campaign had formulated plans to raise McDonnell’s thesis as a key character point even before The Washington Post first wrote about it, according to another Democrat briefed on campaign strategy. The goal, the Democrat said, was to portray McDonnell as far out of the mainstream in an effort to scare voters away from the Republican.

Meanwhile, Deeds is running another advertisement touting backing from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the governor elected in 2001 and still a highly popular figure in the state.

While the thesis gives voters a reason to vote against McDonnell, the second narrative is aimed at giving them a reason to back Deeds, according to Peter Giangreco, a Democratic consultant who headed up President Barack Obama’s direct-mail program in the 2008 election.

“Virginia has done well in the sort of low-tax, bipartisan world that Mark Warner started in 2001, and to take us back to the bad old days of Bush-Gilmore economics would be bad for Virginia,” he said, referring to Warner’s predecessor, ex-Gov. Jim Gilmore (R). “There’s got to be a reason to vote for [Deeds], and I think that narrative is a good way to continue.”

And while the paths to victory for both Corzine and Deeds may be emerging, it is unclear whether either will have the time to execute his strategies. One senior Democratic official in Washington stressed that the party is still the underdog in both races, while another Democratic operative said it would be “a cold day in hell” before the party wins in both states.