Why Obama is taking time to campaign for Rep. Tom Perriello

Tom Perriello, a freshman Democrat from a Republican district in Virginia who is, no surprise, trailing in the polls, is also something rather unusual this campaign season: an Obama loyalist.

By , Staff writer

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    Congressman Tom Perriello, D-Va., right, speaks as his Republican opponent, State Sen. Robert Hurt, listens during a debate in Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday.
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Why is President Obama spending crucial preelection hours campaigning for an endangered freshman House member – Rep. Tom Perriello (D) of Virginia?

After all, Representative Perriello’s district leans Republican. He won by only a few hundred votes in the Obama sweep year of 2008. Right now, he’s trailing his GOP challenger, state Sen. Robert Hurt, by anywhere from one to 12 percentage points, according to various polls. It’s quite likely he’ll lose.

As a general rule, presidents don’t waste their time standing on podiums with one-term lawmakers who are on every prognosticator’s “endangered” list, as he's slated to do Friday night.

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But this is an unusual year, and Perriello’s case is itself unusual.

For one thing, Perriello, a Yale-trained attorney and former lawyer for international human rights efforts, is eager for an Obama visit. In a year where some Democrats are boasting that they voted for John McCain in 2008, and others are literally shooting administration bills in their campaign ads, the president perhaps just wants to reward loyalty.

And Perriello has been unapologetic about his support for Obama and White House legislation. He voted for all the big ones – the stimulus, cap-and-trade climate change legislation, and the health-care bill – despite the conservative cast of his district. That has made him a hero to many liberals. It also has not escaped Mr. Obama’s notice. He mentioned Perriello by name during his appearance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” Wednesday.

“There are a whole bunch of Democrats, guys like Tom Perriello in Virginia, ... who are basically in Republican districts,” said Obama. “You know, they won in the big surge that we had in 2008, they knew it was going to be a tough battle, that these are generally pretty conservative districts, and yet still went ahead and did what they thought was right.”

Finally, Perriello is not irretrievably behind. He could still win, particularly if Obama’s appearance in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, fires up the area’s young and African-American voters. He is an energetic, able candidate (as is Senator Hurt). He has lots of money (though Hurt has matched him ad for ad).

“Perriello has been underestimated before,” notes political analyst Charlie Cook in his Cook Political Report analysis of the race.

But Mr. Cook goes on to note that to this point many of Perriello’s 2008 supporters “simply aren’t engaged,” and that the fundamentals of the race “argue for a Hurt win.”

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