As the three men seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia crisscrossed the state yesterday in a final sprint before tomorrow's primary, they began the day in predominantly African American churches in hopes of kindling excitement among a core constituency of the party.
Enthusiasm among black voters for Barack Obama last fall helped him become the first Democrat since the 1960s to carry Virginia in a presidential election, but it is unclear whether any of the Democrats who hope to succeed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has succeeded in tapping that energy.
In a race without a clear front-runner, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran (Alexandria) have touted endorsements from civil rights leaders and black newspapers, mailed thousands of fliers and competed on radio for support in areas that are not a natural base for any of the three.
They have crafted messages targeting black voters -- who accounted for an estimated 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2008 -- with promises to reduce childhood obesity, spur economic renewal in the urban areas of Richmond and Norfolk and restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. All three have pledged to crack down on predatory payday lenders, an issue McAuliffe elevated by promising to drive such businesses out of the state.
The African American electorate is "a significant portion of the Democratic vote, particularly in a primary," said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D), the state's only black member of Congress, who added yesterday that he voted early for McAuliffe. "The name of the game is identifying your vote and getting it out."
Competing for the chance to oppose Republican Robert F. McDonnell in November, the candidates swept through the state's suburban north and rural southwest over the weekend, rallying with door-knocking volunteers, greeting voters at pizza parlors and barbecue joints and dropping by house parties. But yesterday morning, the place to be was in church pews in the state's two largest black population centers, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
In Norfolk, McAuliffe was ushered to the front row of Gethsemane Community Fellowship Baptist Church as the Rev. Kirk T. Houston Jr. belted out a rocking gospel number, with backing from the choir.
McAuliffe has made the black vote a key part of his strategy, picking up endorsements from the civil rights group Richmond Crusade for Voters and several of the state's leading black newspapers. Wagering that resentment from the 2008 presidential primary contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama has faded, McAuliffe has featured former president Bill Clinton in an automated phone call to voters, praising the candidate as someone who could create jobs as governor.
McAuliffe was introduced at the church by a young seminarian who was about to collect his degree from nearby Regent University. Called to the pulpit, McAuliffe gave a hoarse but rousing stump speech, bringing many in the congregation of about 300 to their feet when he promised to work for the automatic restoration of voting rights to convicted felons, shut down payday lenders and protect voting rights.
"I want to make it crystal clear: I want to help people," McAuliffe said.
Moran has spent years building a statewide network of Democratic loyalists attracted to his progressive message, and he is relying on supporters such as Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones to help get out the vote. He is seeking to undercut McAuliffe with radio ads and mailers reminding voters that McAuliffe chaired Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign and was one of her top advocates during the primary against Obama.
Yesterday, Moran visited Fifth Street Baptist Church in the Highland Park neighborhood on the north side of Richmond, where Deeds appeared two months ago. He came at the invitation of Evelyn Morris-Harris, leader of the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia, and the Rev. Todd F. Gray, the church's pastor.
Gray encouraged the parishioners to vote tomorrow and told them that he will be casting a ballot for Moran.
"Brian is right on guns. He's right on affirmative action. He's right on taxes. He's right on jobs," Gray said. "I'm not telling you who to vote for. I'm just telling you who I'm voting for. I'm voting for Brian Moran."
Moran sat in the front row and spent much of the service bobbing his head to upbeat music sung by a chorus of young adults. In a brief speech, he told parishioners that the race for governor had been a spiritual as well as physical journey. "I know working for this wonderful president we could defeat any foe, conquer any challenge we have ahead," he said.