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Both Candidates Claim Momentum in Virginia Governor's Race

Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures during a debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Oct. 9, 2017.
Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures during a debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Oct. 9, 2017.

Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam both claim momentum is on their side with one day to go before Election Day in Virginia's high-stakes, closely watched race for governor.

The candidates are racing across the state Monday after a weekend spent trying to trying to rally supporters ahead of the Tuesday vote.

Northam felt strong enthusiasm from his supporters and said he was heartened by the high number of absentee votes that had been cast so far compared with four years ago, particularly in Democratic-leaning areas. Northam predicted turnout could be significantly higher than recent past gubernatorial elections.

"We may get well over 50 percent, which would be real good for our party," Northam said.

Gillespie told supporters at a rally Sunday that Republicans were set to sweep statewide races.

"We no longer just have momentum — we have the lead," Gillespie said.

Virginia is one of only two states electing a new governor this year, and the contest is viewed by many as an early referendum on President Donald Trump's political popularity.

Democrats are eager to prove they can harness anti-Trump energy into success at the polls, while Republicans are looking to show they have a winning blueprint in a blue-leaning state. Most public polls have shown a close race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is term limited.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist and the state's lieutenant governor, spent Saturday in voter-rich northern Virginia, where Democrats have run up huge leads in recent statewide elections. He attended rallies with union members, immigrant groups and others where he sought to use anti-Trump energy as a motivating factor.

"Do you all remember how you felt when you woke up on November the 9th of 2016?" Northam asked a group of canvassers in a supporter's backyard in Ashburn, referring to the day after Trump won the presidential campaign. "We cannot take any chances and wake up like that again."

National Democrats, still stinging from last year's presidential race, are hoping a strong showing by Northam will help motivate the party ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections. A string of high-profile surrogates, including former President Barack Obama, have campaigned on his behalf.

Some volunteers helping Northam said Trump's victory had spurred them to get involved in a political campaign for the first time.

"Really, a lot of us feel unsettled," said Kee Jun, a Korean-American from Northern Virginia who helped introduce Northam to voters at a restaurant Saturday. "I feel an obligation to my children, Virginia residents and the nation."

But some Republicans said they felt Trump's victory has energized their party in a lasting way that will help Gillespie.

"People realize they can have a voice and can make a difference in an election," said John Ancellotti, a retired Coast Guard captain and federal agent who attended a Gillespie rally Sunday.

Gillespie, a White House adviser to President George W. Bush and former lobbyist, has kept Trump at a distance and has not campaigned with him. But in a bid to rally Trump supporters, Gillespie has run hard-edge attacks ads against Northam focused on immigrants in the country illegally and preserving Confederate statues. The approach has drawn bipartisan criticism, but Gillespie supporters say he's been unfairly maligned for taking positions that are popular with voters but may not be politically correct.

"Ed is willing to take those arrows," said U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who campaigned with Gillespie on Sunday.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said Saturday that Gillespie's tack to the right will help him "pull this out," according to the pro-Trump website Breitbart News.

Gillespie did not mention the president during Sunday rallies in Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, instead focusing his message on his plan to boost the state's economy.

Republicans said a controversial last-minute ad by the Latino Victory Fund, which features a Gillespie supporter chasing down children of different minority groups in a pickup truck, has helped galvanize Gillespie supporters at a key time.

"That was God's way of helping him," said Robin Milewski, a York County Republican volunteer.