03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Old or New Dominion?

Richmond, VA -- Term limits -- particularly single terms -- make for very bad government. The Commonwealth of Virginia is unique -- it's the only state that has never allowed a governor to be elected for a second consecutive term, a tradition that reflects Thomas Jefferson's supposed aversion to executive power. Of course, Jefferson, who theoretically preferred strong states and a weak federal government, himself ran for the presidency twice, and Virginia's single-term rule has essentially made the state less effective in negotiations with Washington, DC.

But while single-term limits make for weak government (a situation that Virginia governors both Republican and Democratic have lamented),  they do make for interesting journalism because, every four years, just after the presidential election, Virginia has an off-year gubernatorial election with no incumbent. It becomes the perfect Rorschach test for the national political press, facilitated by the fact that the National Press Building in Washington, DC, sits just across the Potomac from the "Old Dominion."

This year the story being written is that the current polling, which shows the Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell leading Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds, signals trouble for President Obama (who carried Virginia) and for the Democrats.  Well, maybe. First of all, Deeds is historically a strong closer who always polls badly. In this year's Democratic primary, Deeds was neither the favorite nor the poll leader. Second, the current national mood is anti-incumbent. In Richmond, the Democrats are the incumbents, having held the governor's mansion for eight years -- so the "new broom" syndrome is helping McDonnell.

But for political insiders, the real importance of these off-year elections is not to test the candidates or parties but to test the electorate and the issues. Off-year election results send a clear signal about the issues that matter, the constituencies in play, and the technologies that will be emphasized.

So what's happening in Virginia?

Well, the climate issue was first injected by the Republicans. When former Vice-President Al Gore came to Virginia to stump for Deeds, the Republicans billed it as "the Goracle" meets "Cap and Trade Creigh."

But Deeds immediately fired back, when McDonnell appeared in Virginia Beach with John McCain, by demanding that McDonnell answer the simple question: Does he or does he not believe in a problem that McCain says is a major world threat? McDonnell didn't seem to know how to answer the question, muddying the waters with statements like:

"I think it's a real concern, and we need to find ways to be able to reduce (carbon dioxide) emissions." But pushed to say if it was real, he backed down.

"Well, there's some debate that various scientists are going on in that," he said. "I think the temperature of the earth, from the science I've seen, is going up."

Is human activity to blame, "Look, it's not going to affect my policy decisions. What the policy decision needs to be is to find ways that are creative to be able to reduce CO2."

OK, then, it's a real concern. But maybe it's not. But, yes it appears to be and, whatever the cause turns out to be, we need to be creative. But   "it"s not going to influence my policy decisions."

So what, Virginians are forced to ask, will influence his policy decisions, since he has just said the science won't?

One reason the climate issue has surfaced from the Democratic side in Virginia is that Millennial voters are widely seen as critical if Deeds is to carry the state -- and young voters care more about climate than any other demographic. E.J. Dionne put it this way in the Washington Post:

Will the young and hopeful abandon the political playing field to older voters who are angry? That is the quiet crisis confronting President Obama and the Democrats. Left unattended, it could become a formidable obstacle for them in next year's midterm elections.

In response, the Sierra Club in Virginia has launched a nifty "Keep Change Alive" website, designed to draw youthful voters back to the Virginia ballot box with a message of hope.

So yes, watch for the off-year election results in both Virginia and New Jersey -- but also keep an eye on the rest of the story.