DANVILLE, Va. When Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) finally took the stage to roaring applause from 500 supporters at the Danville Community Market on Friday, he picked up right where 5th district Congressional candidate Tom Perriello (D) left off, hammering Republicans for policies that led to the nations current economic crisis.
The rally in Danville was well-timed. This week, the city is set to demolish a condemned portion of the now-defunct Long Mill textile plant, which for decades was at the heart of the towns textile industry and a major employer for Danville residents. The mill closed down in the mid-1990s, and plans to turn the site into a new shopping and residential center never materialized.
Perriellos camp views the mill as a symbol of the economic decline that Southside Virginia has experienced under Rep. Virgil Goode (R) and an example of why new leadership, focused on reviving small businesses, is needed in the 5th district.
That message has caught fire. Now, Perriello a 34-year old attorney who was a political unknown when he entered the race could be the surprise of the commonwealth on election night.
If he wins, it will be a sign that the Democratic wave on Election Day has turned into a flood.
Polls taken just two months ago showed the six-term Congressman ahead by more than 30 points in this conservative south-central Virginia district. Perriellos internal polling, taken in mid-October, showed him just 6 points behind.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees an opportunity in the district. The committee has spent $325,000 in independent expenditures in recent weeks on the race, most of it going to fund TV ads. By comparison, Perriellos entire media budget for the cycle is about $750,000.
As of last week, the DCCC began buying time in the Richmond media market, which covers about 15 percent of the district. It was an area that Perriellos campaign had already deemed too expensive to play in on television, and the campaign had planned to cover the territory with mailings and field operations.
Perriello is also expected to benefit from a Democratic presidential campaign that has made Virginia a priority this cycle. That could be especially important because Sen. Barack Obamas (Ill.) presence on the ticket is expected to boost voter turnout among the districts 24 percent black population. Perriellos latest polling numbers conservatively estimated that black voters would make up 18 percent of the electorate on Election Day, leaving plenty of room for growth.
Hes young, hes energetic, he can raise money and this is the right time, Joyce Glaise, a former Danville City Council member, said as she headed into the Biden rally on Friday.
But another Democratic supporter noted as she was waiting in line that the 5th district is very Republican, so its going to take a lot.
The 5th district voted for President Bush by double-digit margins in 2000 and 2004, and Goodes worst performance in six elections came in 2006 when he beat Democrat Al Weed by a very comfortable 19-point margin.
Goode does his own press and prides himself for being hands-on when it comes to constituent issues.
That trait not to mention his pronounced southwestern Virginia drawl has made it very hard for any Democrat to argue that Goode has gone Washington during his time on Capitol Hill.
But Goodes hands-on approach in almost every aspect of his campaign has also been criticized by some Republicans, who say it isnt a feasible way to run a modern campaign.
One Virginia Republican consultant argued Monday that Goode runs a 19th-century campaign in the 21st century and that it allowed an unknown candidate to establish himself and become credible in a contest that should have been a slam-dunk for Goode.
At the end of the day, does Virgil lose? No. Hes too well-known. But at some point in time, this election ought to serve as a wake-up call for how Goode runs his campaigns, the consultant said.
As the race has narrowed in recent weeks, Goodes response has been to paint Perriello as a liberal lawyer whose political philosophy doesnt fit with the conservative values of the district.
Perriello was raised in Albemarle County, which is home to the liberal bastion of Charlottesville, and he earned his law degree in Connecticut at Yale University. After school, he worked for a nonprofit organization in New York.
At the Biden campaign event on Friday, a Republican staging a one-man counter-rally called Perriello a liberal carpetbagger.
He left here to go to New York to become a lawyer, said Elmer Woodard, himself a lawyer in Danville. If he was so concerned about us, why did he leave here in the first place?
Goode said Perriellos law school and New York connections are what gave him the ability to raise a staggering $1.5 million as of Oct. 15. Goode has raised $1.49 million this cycle. In 2006, Weed raised less than $600,000 when he challenged Goode.
The New York money and the California money has allowed him to attract more DCCC money, Goode said on Monday.
According to campaign finance information complied by CQ MoneyLine, Perriello has brought in just under $200,000 from New York and just over $100,000 from donors in California.
You have to be fearful of someone like him who is New York slick, Goode said.
Goode noted that Perriello has made much of his promise this cycle not to take donations from corporate political action committees but corporate PACs give money to [Rep.] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] and Charlie Rangel gives to him.
Goode argues that Perriello is playing loose with the truth when he blames Goode for the regions job losses.
Weve lost manufacturing jobs because of free-trade agreements, Goode said. He said that what workers in Southside Virginia really needed in recent years was more Members of Congress voting against free-trade agreements.
But Perriello told the crowd at Fridays rally that its Goode who likes to twist the truth, especially when hes scared of losing. He cited a recent television commercial with a picture of the Democrat that Perriello says was darkened and altered in order to make him appear more sinister.
From one side we have a politics of fear. A politics of trying to survive by convincing people just how scary the alternative is instead of offering a plan for change, Perriello told the crowd. Weve seen it from my opponent, Congressman Goode. … I tell you this: The 10,000 jobs weve lost during Congressman Goodes time is a lot scarier than that picture.