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Virginia Governor hopeful Glenn Youngkin's delicate dance with the GOP may be working

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Donald Trump has begun holding rallies, and he's hinting at a 2024 run for president as he continues to spread false information about the last election. His reemergence complicates the Republican Party effort to pull off an upset this year in that state's race for governor. Trump lost Virginia by 10 points. Ben Paviour from member station VPM has more from Richmond.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to Richmond, Va.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: The Take Back Virginia rally last week in suburban Richmond was a kind of reunion for the Trump faithful. It begins when host Martha Boneta welcomes a woman on stage with a flag.

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MARTHA BONETA: She's carrying an American flag that was carried at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on January 6.

(APPLAUSE)

PAVIOUR: The crowd stands at attention.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I pledge allegiance...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...To the flag...

PAVIOUR: Later, Trump himself calls in. He slams Democrat Terry McAuliffe, running again for governor, and praises Republican Glenn Youngkin, a businessman.

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DONALD TRUMP: He'll straighten out Virginia, lower taxes, do all of the things that we want a governor to do.

PAVIOUR: Youngkin was not at the event and later called the Pledge of Allegiance, quote, "weird and wrong." McAuliffe quickly seized on the moment. At a rally a few days later, he connected it to Youngkin's early focus on election integrity.

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TERRY MCAULIFFE: He has spent this entire campaign promoting Donald Trump's crazy conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

PAVIOUR: Youngkin says he's on the ballot, not Trump. But early in his campaign, he ran TV ads featuring the former president and wouldn't say whether Biden's election was legitimate. As Youngkin's tried to win over moderates, he's clarified his views, including at a debate last month.

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GLENN YOUNGKIN: I've said there wasn't material fraud, and I believe that the election was certifiably fair.

PAVIOUR: The first-time candidate has continued to make nods toward the MAGA faithful. He's called for audits of voting machines, something Virginia already does, and campaigned alongside 2020 election deniers. Youngkin's delicate dance may be working. Polls show a dead heat in the Virginia governor's race. It helps that the 6'5" businessman looks and talks like a suburban dad, making the rounds at a PTA meeting.

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YOUNGKIN: How old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm 4.

YOUNGKIN: You're 4? I'm 54. How about that?

PAVIOUR: Youngkin moves breezily through the crowd at a rally on Tuesday in northern Virginia. Many people here, like Annette Sudbeck, harbor doubts about the last election, which experts said was free and fair. But Sudbeck gives other reasons for supporting Youngkin.

ANNETTE SUDBECK: It's those conservative values - right? - freedom of speech, our right to vote, free enterprise.

PAVIOUR: Youngkin spends most of his speech riffing on themes that could resonate with Trump supporters, like banning critical race theory from schools. But there's no mention of Trump himself. Speaking to reporters, Youngkin distances himself from the people he campaigns with.

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YOUNGKIN: Please recognize, there is nobody who speaks for me. And people have their own views, and many of them I disagree with.

PAVIOUR: Chuck Hansen's not sold. On paper, Hansen's exactly the kind of person who'd go Youngkin's way. He's a right-leaning resident of Richmond's suburbs, but he's voting for McAuliffe.

CHUCK HANSEN: When I look at Youngkin and the fact that he's aligned with Trump and that Trump took many, many steps to overturn a fair election, there's no contest.

PAVIOUR: Hansen worked as a spokesperson for Republicans on Capitol Hill. He was a reliable GOP voter - at least before Trump. Now, he says, he can't trust Youngkin.

HANSEN: Is he going to be like the Georgia and Texas and Arizona Republicans who are looking for ways to rig the system?

PAVIOUR: Republicans say they're simply re-instilling the public's faith in elections. In the final stretch of the race, Democrats are calling up heavy hitters, like former President Barack Obama, to Virginia. Their pitch - a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.