With just two states holding gubernatorial elections this year, Republicans and Democrats are paying close attention to the political leanings of the Old Dominion, a relatively new "purple state" that helped President Obama secure victory last November.
The three Democrats running for the party's gubernatorial nomination boast very different resumes. One is a well-known political operative, fundraiser and former Hillary Clinton campaign chair, Terry McAuliffe, who has injected a dose of national attention into the primary battle. The others are former state delegate Brian Moran, brother of state Congressman Jim Moran, and state Sen. Creigh Deeds.
Recent polling has shown Deeds with an advantage headed into Tuesday's vote, but many voters are undecided and the turnout is expected to be quite small. The winner of the primary will face off against Republican former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell this November.
Republicans hope that a win in the general election would signal a turnaround for a party desperately in need of a morale boost.
Bob Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and moderator of a debate between the Democratic primary candidates, said that many will see this election as the "first referendum on Barack Obama."
"Many people look at these [elections in Virginia and New Jersey] as a signal or a sign of what might happen in 2010," Holsworth told the Online NewsHour.
"Obama will be indirectly on the ballot in some ways," he added.
A New Battleground
Once a conservative stronghold, Virginia has morphed from a reliably red state into a new battleground for partisan politics due to changing demographics in populous places such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Mr. Obama won Virginia by more than six points in the 2008 presidential election, making it the first time the state voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years. His success is often credited to the affluent and diverse suburbs of Washington, D.C. and a large black population in cities such as Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Still, Virginia maintains a solid base of Republican voters. Both parties are fighting for ownership of the state, pouring more money than ever into this year's gubernatorial race. The Republican Governors Association has given $2.7 million to McDonnell's campaign while the Democratic Governors Association gave almost $3 million to partisan group Common Sense Virginia for an expensive advertising blitz.
The Democratic hopefuls all appear to be working to capture some of the Obama campaign magic that led to his victory. All three have tried to position themselves as President Obama's partner in the state. McAuliffe, who was once embroiled in a bitter primary battle as Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman against then-candidate Obama, has built an organization that looks remarkably like that of the president's.
Hoping to leverage the enthusiasm of Obama's most ardent activists, McAuliffe launched a field-driven campaign that relies heavily on direct voter contact, a strategy that many believe helped Mr. Obama win swing-states like Virginia.
McAuliffe's campaign logo even is reminiscent of the Obama "O," showing a rising sun in Virginia, and he has the endorsement of musician will.i.am, someone who stumped aggressively for President Obama.
Although McAuliffe's tactics have generated media attention, it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to successfully co-opt Obama's strategy to similar effect.
"It's one of the remarkable ironies of this campaign ... [McAuliffe] has very skillfully adopted or adapted a number of Barack Obama's techniques here," Holsworth says. "But no one's quite sure whether or not this will work."
With help from big-name national connections like his friend, former President Bill Clinton, as well as sizable donations from out-of-state donors, McAuliffe captured much of the earlier momentum and media attention.
In debates between the three candidates, Moran and Deeds have attacked McAuliffe as an outsider despite his 17 years living in Northern Virginia.
Hoping to separate himself from a pack that he once led, former state delegate Brian Moran has tried to position himself as the most progressive candidate on issues like gay marriage and off-shore drilling. In a May 19 debate, Moran targeted McAuliffe for his lack of experience in Virginia politics.
"I don't have time to teach you the legislative process, nor do Virginians have time for you to learn," he told McAuliffe.
Deeds, the only candidate who is not from Northern Virginia, once trailed so far behind Moran and McAuliffe in the polls that observers had all but dismissed him as a viable candidate. Critics believed that his rural background and reputation as the more conservative candidate would alienate him from D.C.-area suburban voters.
After a surprise endorsement from the Washington Post in late May, Deeds' poll numbers shot up dramatically, with a number of surveys now showing him in the lead.
"Virginia is still more purple than blue," the Post editorial board declared, "and Mr. Deeds's moderate platform would have the broadest appeal."
The Republican nominee
Hailed as a moderate conservative by his supporters, GOP candidate McDonnell benefited from an uncontested primary, officially securing his party's nomination in May.
Marketing himself as the "jobs" candidate, McDonnell has criticized his opponents for supporting initiatives like the Employee Free Choice Act, or so-called "card check" bill.
McDonnell spokesperson, Crystal Cameron, said in an interview that the McDonnell campaign is well-positioned going into Tuesday's election.
"The three of them are partisan peas in a pod regardless of who is nominated," Cameron said of the Democrats. "We welcome the challenge."
According to Holsworth, however, the real challenge will come when President Obama hits the campaign trail for the eventual Democratic nominee.
With the Republican Party still licking its wounds from the 2008 election and no clear leadership, "Bob McDonnell doesn't have an equivalent Republican to bring in (for support)," Holsworth said.
In recent years, Virginia Democrats have become increasingly visible on the national stage. Former Gov. Mark Warner was chosen as the keynote speaker at the party's convention in 2008, and in 2009, current Gov. Tim Kaine will chair the Democratic National Committee.
A loss in Virginia would be a setback for both the Democratic Party as well as the White House. They will be watching the race for a validation of Obama administration policies.
"Republicans would like nothing better to embarrass Obama and Kaine," Holsworth said.
Levar Stoney, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party echoed this sentiment saying, "The Republicans have the first opportunity to show that what happened in Virginia in 2008 was a fluke. ... You're going to see the RNC throwing in a lot of resources trying to prove what happened was wrong."
---- By Kate Stanton for the Online NewsHour