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Prelude to a 2010 drama

The first key votes of the Obama era take place this week, not on the floor of the House or Senate, where health care legislation still languishes, but in Virginia, New Jersey and northern New York state, where President Obama's endorsements of threatened Democratic candidates will test his political clout a year after his own election.

Late polls say the odds are against R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic state senator battling former Attorney General Bob McDonnell to hold the Virginia governorship that has been in Democratic hands for the past eight years. In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, riding a tide of votes from African-Americans, young people and urban precincts.

But Deeds, a soft-spoken campaigner from a rural county, has struggled to connect with those voters. And McDonnell, whose political roots are in the religious right mobilized three decades ago by televangelist Pat Robertson, has run a smart campaign, appealing to suburban voters by opposing taxes and downplaying social issues.

Virginia has a long-standing habit of voting in its off-year gubernatorial elections opposite the way the nation went in the previous year's presidential race, and it appears poised to do so once again.

Up the coast in New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has been the aggressor all year against Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, the multimillionaire transplant from Wall Street. As in his previous successful races for senator and governor, Corzine has made up for his lack of personal political skills by hitting his opponent with an expensive and highly negative TV assault.

Corzine's vulnerability for not solving the state's chronic dependence on high property taxes could elect Christie. But New Jersey has a far more solid Democratic voter base than does Virginia, so Obama, who has campaigned with both Deeds and Corzine, has a better chance to welcome the Garden State result.

The third contest in which the president has raised money and delivered a personal endorsement is a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, crowding the Canadian border. Obama set up the race by appointing Rep. John McHugh, a moderate Republican, as his secretary of the Army.

Faced with finding a new candidate, Republican district caucuses turned to state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, another moderate who fits the profile of the district. But the man she beat for the Republican nomination, businessman Doug Hoffman, grabbed the Conservative Party nomination and, pledging his own money to the fight, quickly became the favorite of many movement conservative leaders. Among his endorsers are Sarah Palin and one of her potential rivals for the 2012 presidential nomination, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But Newt Gingrich and Republican congressional leaders have given their backing to Scozzafava in order to discourage splinter parties, even though they disagree with her support of gay rights and abortion rights.

The open split on the Republican side has opened the way for Democrat Bill Owens, who normally would not have a prayer of winning, to provide an unexpected payoff for Obama's recruitment of a rare Republican for his administration.

A win in the 23rd and a Corzine victory in New Jersey would go a long way toward salving the wounds of seeing Virginia follow its historical pattern of voting against the party occupying the White House.

But Tuesday's voting is merely the curtain-raiser on a full year of headlined Senate and statehouse races that will go a long way toward defining the landscape of Obama's political future. The gubernatorial battles will be especially worth watching.

It is there that Republicans have their best opportunity to find the missing leadership that now allows Democrats to characterize them simply as "the party of no," and the GOP has recruited potentially powerful challengers in such states as Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado and Tennessee.

The winners of these and other gubernatorial battles will have a large voice in the redistricting that will follow the 2010 census. With other major states such as Florida, Texas and California facing Republican gubernatorial primaries and potential Democratic comeback bids, there will be drama from coast to coast.

David Broder is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com.