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GOP Candidates In Virginia, NJ Wary Of Palin

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NEW YORK — Sarah Palin's decision to step down as Alaska governor was driven in part by her wish to help Republican candidates across the country, associates say.

But in New Jersey and Virginia, two states with competitive governors' races this year, the prospect of a visit from the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee has so far drawn a muted response from the GOP contenders there.

In Virginia, a historically conservative state where Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to win, Republican Bob McDonnell said Tuesday his campaign had had conversations with the Palin camp but stopped short of saying whether he wanted her help.

In an interview with ABCNews.com, McDonnell called Palin a "good spokesman" and said he would welcome anyone who wanted to come to Virginia on his behalf. McDonnell, a former state attorney general, is in a tight race with Democrat Creigh Deeds to succeed outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine, a moderate who now chairs the Democratic National Committee.

But McDonnell also predicted the contest would not be affected by any high-profile endorsements on either side and professed confusion about Palin's abrupt decision to leave office with 18 months left in her term.

"I don't know how this recent announcement _ which I still don't fully understand; I only know what I've read in the media _ how that fully plays out and whether she's going to prefer a private life or whether she still wants to stay actively involved," McDonnell said.

In New Jersey, where President Barack Obama trounced the McCain-Palin ticket by 15 percentage points last November, state Republican Chairman Jay Webber said he'd had no contact with Palin or her team about a campaign visit on behalf of GOP candidate Chris Christie.

Several statewide polls have shown Christie, a former U.S. attorney, leading Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who is running for re-election.

"We don't have any plans on having her in," Webber said. "We're busy working to get Chris Christie elected and telling people about the failed record of Gov. Corzine."

The Virginia and New Jersey races are the only major statewide electoral contests in 2009, and strategists for both parties are studying them for clues as to whether the Republican Party can rebound from its devastating losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Obama already has written a fundraising e-mail for Deeds in Virginia and will campaign with Corzine in New Jersey next week.

With few nationally recognized stars of their own, Republicans are trying to assess the impact _ both positive and negative _ Palin might have in both governors' races.

After Palin announced she would give up the governorship in Alaska, Nick Ayers, director of the Republican Governors Association, and Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, both indicated she was eager to begin campaigning for GOP candidates.

"She is an important and galvanizing voice in the Republican Party. I believe she will be very helpful to the party this year as we wage critical campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey," Steele said.

To be sure, Palin has shown strength as a campaign surrogate.

Last fall, in a runoff election between Georgia GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin, Palin visited the state on Chambliss' behalf. Chambliss ended up defeating Martin by 15 percentage points in the December runoff, after winning by just three points a few weeks earlier in the November general election.

"I can't overstate the impact she had down here," Chambliss told Fox News the day after the runoff. "When she walks in a room, folks just explode."

But for all her charisma, Palin remains a decidedly mixed bag politically. While she remains wildly popular with many conservatives, she's held in contempt by many Democrats and has had little success winning over independents, who make up a growing share of voters in many states.

"She's a very polarizing figure. A lot of people love her, a lot of people just as strongly dislike her. Nobody's neutral about her," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

For their part, Democrats in both New Jersey and Virginia were eager to link their rival GOP contenders to Palin.

"Her positions are certainly consistent with where Christie's been," Corzine spokesman Sean Darcy said. "They would both deny a woman the right to choose and they oppose new gun control legislation. And like Palin, Christie's staked out conservative right-wing positions on rejecting the federal stimulus money, which would create thousands of jobs."

In Virginia, Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Deeds, said, "If what Bob McDonnell wants to do is to bring in Sarah Palin and advocate for the same Republican policies that would take Virginia backward, I think Virginians would say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"

At least one 2010 candidate says he is eager for Palin's help.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a conservative Republican facing a tough primary challenge from moderate Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, told reporters Wednesday that Palin is committed to campaigning for his re-election bid and that he welcomes her support.

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Lewis reported from Richmond, Va. Associated Press writer Michael Graczyk contributed to this report from Conroe, Texas.