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Barack Obama

Obama wades into Democrats' tough governor races

HACKENSACK, New Jersey (Reuters) - President Barack Obama threw himself into the role of “campaigner in chief” on Wednesday, making appeals for Democratic candidates in two state governor races that some see as a referendum on his performance in the White House.

In New Jersey, Obama addressed a rally on behalf of Jon Corzine, who is locked in a tight race to remain governor of the heavily Democratic state in which economic issues have been a major theme.

“There seems to be some selective memory here about how we got into this fix,” Obama told 3,500 Corzine supporters in a basketball arena, referring to Republican charges that Corzine, a former investment banker, has done too little to boost the state’s economy during the downturn.

“Overcoming enormous challenges is not that easy. It’s not going to happen overnight,” Obama said.

The president also appeared in an ad for Creigh Deeds, who trails by double digits in his bid to become the third consecutive Democratic governor of Virginia. The state backed Obama in the 2008 presidential election but is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Obama will go to Norfolk, Virginia, next Tuesday for his second campaign rally for Deeds.

“I need every one of you to get fired up once again so that we can go toward the future, with Creigh Deeds leading the great Commonwealth of Virginia,” Obama says in the ad.

Analysts said New Jersey and Virginia, the only governors’ seats up for grabs this year, could influence Obama’s policy priorities like his efforts to reform the U.S. healthcare system and regulation of financial markets.

Defeat for Deeds and Corzine on November 3 could convince more moderate legislators that support for Democrats has weakened since Obama’s election victory last November and keep them from backing efforts like the healthcare overhaul.

President Obama meets New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine at Newark Airport in New Jersey, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

NEW JERSEY RACE SEEN MORE LOCAL

The race in New Jersey reflects more the struggles of an unpopular incumbent than the national political mood and will be decided on Corzine’s handling of issues such as the state’s high property taxes, analysts said.

Corzine has sought to identify challenger Christopher Christie with the previous president, Republican George W. Bush. “Do we affirm the politics of yes, we can?” he asked at the rally, using Obama’s popular campaign slogan. “Or do we turn back to failed policies and bankrupt values?”

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has clung to a small poll lead over Corzine, despite appearances by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton has also campaigned for both Corzine and Deeds.

The Virginia race is seen as more of a referendum on national issues such as the economy and healthcare.

Republican Bob McDonnell leads Deeds by 52 percent to 40 percent, according to a poll of 666 Virginia voters released on Wednesday by Public Policy Polling. McDonnell had led Deeds by just 48 percent to 43 percent in its previous survey, conducted three weeks earlier.

“Creigh Deeds is in a pretty dire position right now,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “Democrats aren’t very enthusiastic about this election. He has to hope that visits on his behalf from folks like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton get a lot more of the party’s base out to the polls.”

Obama referred to Deeds’ trailing poll numbers, noting that he had been given slim chances of winning the presidency.

“That gap between what is and what’s possible, that gap can be closed,” Obama said. “We need that same kind of energy, excitement and commitment around this campaign.”

Last year Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Virginia since 1964.

In the New Jersey race, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted October 7-12 gave Christie 41 percent of the vote against 40 percent for Corzine and 14 percent for independent candidate Chris Daggett.

That compares with a 4-point lead for Christie in the previous Quinnipiac poll.

Democrats now hold 28 governorships in the 50 states, including New Jersey and Virginia, while Republicans have 22.

In Virginia, incumbent Democratic Governor Tim Kaine cannot run because of term limits. His predecessor and fellow Democrat Mark Warner is now one of the state’s two U.S. senators.

New Jersey has not elected a Republican governor since Christine Todd Whitman in 1994.

Editing by David Alexander and Chris Wilson

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