A midterm message in Virginia and New Jersey

One Democratic candidate has distanced himself from his party's and his president's signature issue. Another has embraced it. Who's better off?

Robert Shrum

Last week, the La Pietra Dialogues, held at the renaissance villa that is the heart of NYU's campus in Florence, convened the second annual trans-Atlantic conversation on American politics and policy. Last year, Obama was the focus—and he still is. Even at this distance, he is clearly seen as the center of gravity, and the panelists in Florence analyzed everything from the prospects for health-care legislation to the upcoming elections in November—and the midterms beyond—in the context of Obama’s pull.

At La Pietra, all agreed that health care is a pivot point for Democrats. So what happens if reform fails? Specifically, which congressional candidates, in the event of a Clinton-like implosion on health care, would be prime candidates for the midterm chopping block? Nearly 4,000 miles from Florence, an answer was unfolding in the off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey—an answer that reinforces the judgment of history.

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Robert Shrum has been a senior adviser to the Gore 2000 presidential campaign, the campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the British Labour Party. In addition to being the chief strategist for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, Shrum has advised thirty winning U.S. Senate campaigns; eight winning campaigns for governor; mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other major cities; and the Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Shrum's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and other publications. The author of No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner (Simon and Schuster), he is currently a Senior Fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.