Spinning the numbers: Richards gaining ground on Goode?

One of the most exciting aspects of politics is the art of the spin. Even if a poll shows a candidate trailing her opponent 58 to 31 percent, you'll never hear the candidate admit she doesn't have a chance.

And in the 5th District congressional race, where Democrat Meredith Richards' own poll shows incumbent Virgil Goode holding 58 to 31 percent edge, her campaign staff says they're "encouraged" by the seemingly devastating numbers, and even use poll results to show how Richards could win.

When Richards declared her candidacy, she was considered a long shot at best. Goode has the name recognition from being in politics since 1973, in Congress since 1996 and from famously switching parties, going from lifelong Democrat to run for reelection this year as a Republican.

"After the full story is told about her record here in Charlottesville and his rather extreme record in Congress, the numbers are 46 percent Richards, 40 percent Goode," says Richards' senior political consultant Jim Severt.

Of the 300 people polled in August, Severt considers one of the most "amazing" numbers the fact that only 50 percent said they'd reelect Goode. "Fifty percent is incredibly low for someone who, up until now, was considered invulnerable."

The Richards camp also takes heart in numbers showing Richards garnering 55 percent of women's votes in the district (to 25 percent for Goode) and 49 percent of the Southside Virginia vote to Goode's 34 percent.

Severt thinks high unemployment levels along the North Carolina border will help Richards. "Obviously, Southside is Goode's natural base," he says, "but with the persistent economic distress, people are willing to look at change."

Goode, of course, has his own poll, and in September it showed him carrying the 5th District 60 to 28 percent. "But I don't go by that," he says.

Nor does he go by Richards' numbers that show a closer race than predicted, and the strong showing among women and Southside Virginians. "I would disagree with that," he says.

Goode isn't resting on the extravagant lead in his poll. At a press conference October 18, he told supporters, "We have got to have a good turnout. With a small turnout, the opposition could win."

Traditional wisdom is that Democratic candidates fare better with a large voter turnout. Could Goode have forgotten that he's no longer a Democrat?

Political pundit Larry Sabato expects low turnout for the Virginia midterm elections. "I don't want to say an underdog can't win," he says, "but the odds are great every incumbent will win."

Severt thinks the poll indicates several other strengths for Richards, especially among African Americans, who make up 24 percent of the 5th District. Her survey sample included 13 percent African Americans, 85 percent of whom support her. "I think it underestimates her strength to some degree," he observes.

The Richards camp also is counting on Governor Mark Warner's popularity in the 5th District, which he carried in last year's election. "To go from Ollie North carrying the district to Mark Warner shows something is changing," says Severt.

Goode's response to the Warner factor: "I don't think so. I'll carry some of those precincts."

As the race winds down to its final two weeks, the one number no one disputes is that Richards is trailing in her fund raising. While she's raised around $136,000, Goode sits on approximately $750,000.

And some Richards supporters wonder when her television commercials will begin. Seventeen days before the election, even Severt is unsure. "As soon as resources permit," he hedges. "We have money to run a good solid buy in several markets."

Goode is already advertising on TV. Can voters expect a media blitz the last week before the election? "I'm not going to tell the press that," he says.