The risks of running as Trump-lite

The risks of running as Trump-lite
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Glenn Youngkin is running as Trump-lite; it's a challenging journey.

The GOP nominee for governor of Virginia is trying to thread a delicate political needle: to be Trumpian enough to energize the party's hard-core base, but not so much it turns off independent-minded suburban voters who have turned the state politically blue this century.

It's awkward as the wealthy former private equity executive parades as a populist, trying to appeal to both sides on issues ranging from election integrity to COVID-19. His worst fear may be if Trump, who has said Youngkin will “make Virginia great again,” actually comes into the state to campaign for him.

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Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, links Youngkin to Trump in virtually every interview, speech or ad. President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE this summer called the Republican candidate “an acolyte for Trump.”

Youngkin essentially was — in order to win the contested Republican nomination this spring. “Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” Youngkin declared.

He also has said “election integrity” is a priority for his candidacy, seeming to embrace Trumps “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him last year. Youngkin attended a Trump-supporting rally for that cause at Liberty University in Lynchburg. Trump has warned that Democrats will “cheat” to win this election.

After Youngkin won the nomination in May, he started to pivot, finally acknowledging that Biden had won the election and removing some previous messages from his campaign website.

This is a tough balancing act. The core Trump base tolerates little dissent from their man, while Virginia's independent-minded voters, who voted decisively against the former president, have little tolerance for what they consider demagoguery.

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Most of the public supports COVID-19 vaccinations, while Trumpites are among the more active anti-vaxxers. Youngkin straddles. He is vaccinated, and he urges others to do likewise. But he opposes any requirement, saying people have the ability to make that decision for themselves. On this issue he has praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisSchools without mask mandate 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks: CDC study Texas limits business with Ben & Jerry's over Israel move Overnight Health Care — Presented by Indivior — CDC panel approves boosters for some, but not based on jobs MORE, a favorite of the Trump right, even as COVID cases surge in Florida.

The first-time political candidate, dipping into his considerable wealth to make this a competitive race, generally avoids the media and has ducked debates. There is a debate slated for next Friday. A key will be whether Youngkin can still straddle.

It's easy to see why the Republican is hiding. A liberal group surreptitiously got him to talk about abortion at a private gathering. He said he was strongly pro-life, would strip Planned Parenthood of state funding but wanted to keep quiet on it until after he was elected.

With a clear reference to those Northern Virginia suburban voters, not realizing he was being taped, he explained, “We’re going after those one million voters who are, sadly, gonna decide this” election. (The “sadly” label is reminiscent of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE labeling some Trump voters as “deplorables.”)

Although this isn't Trump-specific, the Nov. 2 election will be the first real electoral test since Texas passed abortion restrictions that essentially nullified Roe v. Wade protections. Youngkin says he is “unabashedly pro-life,” while carving out exceptions in cases of rape, incest and if the life of the mother is endangered. This would suggest he opposes the Texas law which has no such exceptions. He hasn't taken a stand, though his running mate supports the Texas law.

Drawing on his background, Youngkin echoes the former president, that he’d be the “jobs governor” running against “radical Democrats”; the state, he charges, is overly taxed — “California East” — and business is saddled with onerous regulations.

It's a problematic pitch. The four Democratic governors elected since 2001 — the incumbent Ralph Northam, McAuliffe, and current U.S. Senators Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KainePanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' MORE — all are moderate progressives. The Tax Foundation puts the state right in the middle of all 50 on tax burden, considerably less than California; a pretty comprehensive survey by CNBC found Virginia the most business friendly state in America.

The Republican's closing arguments may focus more on crime and the so-called critical race theory, charging, falsely, that Virginia school kids are being subjected to race-based propaganda. (There is an irony here in that Virginia in the 50s actually did practice race-based propaganda, with massive resistance to the Supreme Court's order that public schools be racially integrated.)

Ultimately, however, it's more likely to hinge on the Trump tightrope. McAuliffe has offered to pay for the former president to come to Virginia and stump for his candidate.

In his initial commercials, Youngkin was seen walking down the middle of the road with shady politicians on each side.

The risk in that lane is getting swiped by both sides.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.