ARLINGTON, Va. – President Barack Obama cast Republican Ken Cuccinelli on Sunday as part of an extreme tea party faction that shut down the government, throwing the political weight of the White House behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final days of a bitter race for governor.
Seeking an upset, Cuccinelli cast this week's Virginia gubernatorial election as a referendum on Obama's troubled national health care law.
National issues that have divided Democrats and Republicans spilled into the race and colored the final hours of campaigning ahead of Tuesday's vote. As one of just two gubernatorial races in the nation, the results of Tuesday's elections could hold clues about voter attitudes and both parties' messages heading into the 2014 midterm elections.
Obama tore into Cuccinelli as an ideologue unwilling to compromise, while Cuccinelli was telling his supporters that Tuesday's election will be a test for the health care law and McAuliffe's support for it.
"No more Obamacare in Virginia. That's the message we can send," Cuccinelli said in Weyers Cave, a small town northwest of Charlottesville, as he began a day that was taking him from airport to airport, many in Republican-rich regions in southern and western Virginia.
A short time later, in northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington, Obama said a vote for McAuliffe would be a vote for progress. He said Cuccinelli wanted Virginia voters to forget that the Republican's like-minded counterparts in Congress just weeks earlier had taken the economy, the nation and the economy hostage, hurting Virginians in the process.
"Now he says it's in the rearview mirror. It can't be in the rearview mirror if this is your operative theory of politics," Obama told a crowd of 1,600 gathered in a high school gymnasium in Arlington.
Polls show McAuliffe ahead and campaign finance reports show dramatically lopsided results, with the Democrats outraising and outspending Cuccinelli and his allies by a wide margin. Television airtime was tilted in McAuliffe's favor by 10-to-1.
That has led Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general who led the unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn the health law, to focus on reaching conservative voters almost exclusively. He uses his campaign stops to energize his own backers, many of whom disapprove of the president and detest his health care law.
"If you want to fight Obamacare, if you want to tell Washington that Virginians have had enough of Obamacare, then I need your vote," a hoarse Cuccinelli said at an airport rally in Roanoke.
The race is going to be decided by the few Virginians who choose to vote. The state Board of Elections chief says turnout could be as low as 30 percent of registered voters and the campaigns see 40 percent turnout as the goal.
"If mainstream Virginians from both parties don't turn out to vote, you're letting the tea party decide Virginia's future," McAuliffe said. More than 114,000 Virginians have already voted early.
That doesn't mean Cuccinelli is yielding.
Cuccinelli kept an intense focus on the health care law, knocking McAuliffe for wanting to use the law to expand Medicaid and add 400,000 Virginians to the program. McAuliffe says the program keeps Virginia tax dollars at home, but Cuccinelli says it will be a drag on the state budget and tie future governors' hands.
"Once you get in, there's no getting out," Cuccinelli said, then referred to the popular Eagles' song about a hotel where people could "check in but never leave."
"It's like Hotel California," he said.
Obama's pitch for McAuliffe constituted a last-minute push by the White House and prominent Democrats to close the deal in the race's final days. McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, has had help from former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Vice President Joe Biden was to do his part Monday, and first lady Michelle Obama lent her voice to radio ads backing McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli campaigned Saturday with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were expected to join him Monday.
Obama won Virginia in the presidential election last year by just 3 percentage points, racking up big margins in the Democrat-rich Washington suburbs where he campaigned Sunday, but carrying far fewer votes in the more conservative, southern parts of the state that have been a focus for Cuccinelli. One year later, Obama and Democrats are struggling with a health care rollout that's turned into a political fiasco, and hope a McAuliffe victory will help Democrats regain their footing.
Democrats see Virginia as a test case for other competitive states and are eager for a win there to show their approach to governing is resonating with voters ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.
That's especially true when it comes to the recent fiscal crisis, in which House Republicans refused to approve government funding unless Obama agreed to debilitating changes to "Obamacare." Democrats emerged politically strengthened from the debacle and are looking to Virginia to see whether that advantage will translate into real gains in elections.
Obama has been aggressively fundraising for Democrats, but has sought to limit the risks. He and Biden didn't announce events for McAuliffe until after it was clear the Democrat was far ahead in the polls; the same was true with New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. In New Jersey, this year's only other gubernatorial race, the Democrat is far down in the polls and Obama isn't offering any assistance.