LYNCHBURG, Va. — A bruised and battered Gov. Rick Perry heads out of his second presidential debate and into the battleground state of Virginia, where he’ll seek to reconnect with social conservatives today at the world’s largest evangelical Christian university.
On the heels of a Tea Party-sponsored debate where he took repeated hits — even boos — for authorizing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and attempting to require the human papillomavirus vaccine for adolescent girls, Perry’s visit to Liberty University, known for producing ranks of young conservative activists and voters, carries new significance. The Christian liberal arts university was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007, six years after he famously said abortion, feminism and homosexuality were partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks (he later apologized).
“Obviously the vast majority of our students are social conservatives,” said University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., a far less controversial figure than his father. “Rick Perry is probably one of the stronger candidates on social issues."
From Lynchburg, Perry heads to Richmond for a visit with the leader of the state’s Republican establishment: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is Perry’s replacement as the head of the Republican Governors Association and who has already expressed his interest in a vice presidential nod.
Liberty University “is the headquarters of the Christian right, and of its reach. Virginia is a swing state, and it’s got a governor who is a dynamic person with a future looking up,” said Tom Edmonds, a Virginia-based Republican strategist and past president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
“It’s the right thing to do to get dividends down the road,” he added.
Virginia is a giant question mark for political observers — and a key state to win for presidential candidates. The state, long Republican, went blue in 2008 for the first time since 1964. While some call it a fluke, Ford O’Connell, a Virginia Republican strategist who advised the McCain-Palin campaign in the last presidential race, said he’s not so sure.
“We’re going from what used to be traditional Virginia to modern Virginia, and we’ve got a very split electorate,” he said. “There’s no plausible scenario for the GOP to win the White House without winning Virginia.”
Perry’s trip to Liberty isn’t uncommon — it’s a regular campaign stop for Republicans seeking the blessings of social conservatives they need to win the GOP nomination. Interviewed by phone on Tuesday, Falwell said six of the eight leading Republican presidential contenders will have visited Liberty by the end of the month. “I think you’d be remiss if you did not stop at Liberty,” O’Connell said.
Lynchburg, in southern Virginia, is another important stop in a state that strategists say is unpredictable and takes ample resources and costly voter-turnout efforts to win. (The Obama camp is clearly hoping to get a boost from former Democratic Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's bid for U.S. Senate.)
“You want to win the nomination,” said Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, “but you also want to lay the groundwork for the general election.”
Palazzolo said the Richmond trip is equally important because the Christian right doesn’t define Virginia Republicans, who often see themselves as more “business” or “economic” conservatives. “This is not South Carolina, as far as culturally conservative leanings,” he said.
That's why any time Perry spends with McDonnell, the state’s popular Republican governor, will work to his advantage. McDonnell won a resounding victory in 2009, after the state helped elect Obama in 2008. And he’s been heralded by the right for keeping the state’s budget balanced in a difficult economic climate despite pressure to increase spending.
“He’s philosophically conservative, and stylistically moderate,” Palazzolo said, suggesting that McDonnell might be a good foil for Perry. “He’s cordial — he doesn’t do combat.”
He’s also done something Perry has struggled to do in Texas, political observers say — unite the establishment and Tea Party wings of the Republican party.
But while many Virginians would like to see it, O’Connell said the reality is that whoever the nominee is may need to add diversity to the ticket. “McDonnell knows full well for the GOP candidate to unseat Obama, [he or she] is going to need to make inroads with Hispanics, with women,” O’Connell said.