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Election results hearten Republicans, deal blow to Obama

The 2009 election results in two governor's races are a warning to moderate Democrats worried about 2010 reelection. If they go down, Obama's agenda is imperiled.

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In general, the economic anxieties of New Jersey and Virginia voters showed Obama and the Democrats that they could face a stiff headwind next November. Though important indicators show an economy on the mend, unemployment approaching 10 percent – and likely to get worse before it gets better – dominates public consciousness.

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"Vast economic discontent marked the mood of Tuesday's off-year voters, portending potential trouble for incumbents generally and Democrats in particular in 2010," wrote ABC News pollster Gary Langer in an exit poll analysis. "Still, the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey looked less like a referendum on Barack Obama than a reflection of their own candidates and issues."

In Virginia, 48 percent of voters said they approve of Obama's job performance. In New Jersey, that number is 57 percent. Nationally, Obama's job approval rating averages just above 50 percent in major polls.

But Obama's personal popularity was not enough to carry either Democrat across the finish line in either state. In New Jersey, in particular, Obama put his own prestige on the line by making last-minute appearances with Corzine, to no avail. In Virginia, Mr. Deeds distanced himself from Obama at times, which dampened enthusiasm among voters who had flooded polling places a year ago to support Obama. Most tellingly, Deeds lost even in suburban Fairfax County, an increasingly Democratic stronghold. Deeds was generally seen as a weak candidate, who failed to articulate a clear, positive message for himself. McDonnell, in contrast, was well-spoken and disciplined, and did not allow the surfacing of his 20-year-old master's thesis laying out ultraconservative social views to distract from his core economic message.

McDonnell effectively put to rest concerns about his views on women, by running TV ads featuring women who have worked for him over the years speaking positively about him. He also highlighted one of his daughters, who was a platoon leader in Iraq. In his master's thesis, he said women who work outside the home harm families. He also laid out conservative views on abortion and birth control, but did not highlight his social positions in the campaign.

Already, analysts are touting McDonnell's campaign style, demeanor, and message as a winning model for Republican candidates. In a party desperate for appealing, fresh faces who could play well on the national stage, McDonnell is a figure to watch. If he succeeds as governor in what is now a swing state, watch for Republicans to start mentioning him as possible presidential material – not in 2012, when he will be finishing his term, but in 2016. Virginia governors are allowed to serve only one term.

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Who is shaping the new GOP?

The most fertile terrain for Republicans is the burgeoning ranks of independents.

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