By Steve Holland
ARLINGTON, Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats attempted on Sunday to tap into voter anger about a 16-day U.S. government shutdown and turn Virginia's upcoming governor's election into a referendum on Tea Party conservatives.
With Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe leading polls over Republican Ken Cuccinelli before Tuesday's vote, Obama and Democratic speakers at a rally in the Washington suburb of Arlington pressed party activists to focus on turning out the vote.
Northern Virginia's Washington suburbs, where many government employees and contractors live, was hit particularly hard by the government shutdown last month that resulted from a stalemate over the U.S. budget and debt ceiling that Americans for the most part blamed on Republicans.
The Tea Party conservative wing within the House of Representatives was a key bloc in Republicans' failed push to defund Obama's signature healthcare law in exchange for approving spending bills to reopen the government.
"This election is going to say a lot about Virginia's future, and the country's future," said Obama.
Addressing a crowd of about 1,600 people in a high school gymnasium, Obama said the Tea Party was "willing to hijack their party, the country and the economy and bring progress to an absolute halt if they don't get 100 percent of what they want."
Speakers tried to tie Cuccinelli, a conservative who is the Virginia attorney general and an opponent of abortion, to the Tea Party movement by pointing out he had Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas, speak at an event for him two weeks ago.
"He refused to speak out and tell Ted Cruz to stop the government shutdown, stop hurting Virginia families," said Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, himself a former governor. "He stood with the Tea Party and not with Virginia families."
McAuliffe asked, "Could you imagine if Ted Cruz and Ken Cuccinelli and the Tea Party ran the Virginia government?"
The Tea Party attacks by the Democrats are only the opening rounds of a battle that will play out over the next year leading up to the November 2014 mid-term congressional elections.
The party that controls the White House usually loses congressional seats in years when there is not a presidential election, but Democrats are hoping to hold their own by campaigning against the Tea Party in 2014.
The residual voter anger in the aftermath of the government shutdown seems to be helping McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman known mostly for his prodigious fund-raising for Democratic candidates, particularly Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have already campaigned for him.
Vice President Joe Biden is to campaign for McAuliffe on Monday.
Obama urged Virginia Democrats not to take a victory for granted, since Republicans will likely be motivated to turn out for Cuccinelli.
"Nothing makes me more nervous than when my supporters starting feeling too confident," Obama said.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)