By Gabriella Borter
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday joins a roster of high-profile Democrats campaigning for Virginia governor candidate Terry McAuliffe, just days ahead of a tight, closely-watched election.
Opinion polls show McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, and Republican Glenn Youngkin nearly tied in the countdown to the Nov. 2 contest.
The race is seen as a barometer of the country’s political direction after Joe Biden, a Democrat, won the presidency over Republican Donald Trump a year ago.
A poll this week by Monmouth University https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_VA_102021 showed Youngkin, 54, had closed McAuliffe’s 5-point lead since September by gaining ground with independent and women voters.
Youngkin’s strength in the polls during the first weeks of early voting has worried Democrats, who anticipated a comfortable lead in a state that has trended blue in recent years. Democrats flipped the Virginia legislature in 2019 and Trump lost the state by 10 percentage points in November 2020, double his margin of defeat in 2016.
Obama, who served as president from 2008 to 2016, was due to speak at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond on Saturday afternoon, aiming to boost McAuliffe, 64, in the final leg of the race. Biden is slated to campaign with McAuliffe next week.
In a television ad broadcast on Wednesday, Obama backed McAuliffe’s stances on climate change, abortion rights and voting rights.
“I watched Terry stand strong on the values we all care about; protecting every citizen’s right to vote, fighting climate change and defending a woman’s right to choose,” Obama said of the former governor.
The serving governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, cannot seek re-election because the state bars governors from serving consecutive terms. McAuliffe can run because he left office in 2018.
Both candidates for governor have dug into hotly contested cultural issues to stir up voter engagement in the off-year election, including abortion rights and how schools address the topics of race and racism with students.
McAuliffe has sought to paint Youngkin as a far-right extremist and align him with Trump, who has endorsed the Republican candidate.
In turn, Youngkin has suggested that McAuliffe is trying to advance a far-left agenda. A former private equity executive, Youngkin has focused in part on education – especially the right of parents to have a say in their children’s schooling – which has proven popular with suburban women, a key demographic.
Youngkin was kicking off a bus tour on Saturday in Henrico, Virginia, touting his agenda to build momentum in the final days of campaigning.
He has walked a fine line between welcoming Trump’s endorsement and distancing himself from the former president’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Last week, Youngkin dissociated himself from a rally held to support him, which was headlined by longtime Trump aide Steve Bannon and Trump himself, who spoke by phone. At the event, attendees pledged allegiance to a flag that event leaders said was present on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters led an assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Youngkin issued a statement saying it was “weird and wrong” to pledge allegiance to a flag with Jan. 6 connections.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis)