HAMPTON, Va. — Over the blasting horns of a marching band, Brian Moran, the chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, yelled into the stands. It was minutes before kickoff at Hampton University’s football stadium on Saturday.
“Governor Patrick from Massachusetts is here!” Moran bellowed, as Deval Patrick waved and the fans stared, or nodded. “He’s here getting the vote out!”
This is the glamorous life of Patrick, campaign surrogate for his friend, President Obama.
On a swing through two college campuses in this battleground state on Saturday, the governor spoke to small crowds, shook hands at Obama campaign offices, and posed for photographs.
The governor has been traveling the country like this since January, attending dozens of Democratic events from Washington State to Iowa to South Carolina. Now, with polls in the presidential race tightening and problems mounting at home, his travel has taken on added sense of urgency and an edge of political peril.
Republicans have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of Patrick’s trips, arguing he needs to be in Massachusetts when inmates are being released because of the state drug lab crisis, a national meningitis outbreak has been linked to a Framingham pharmacy, and the governor’s casino compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag has been rejected by the federal government.
On Friday, when Patrick was campaigning for Obama in North Carolina, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson accused the governor of “gallivanting around the country” instead of focusing on the drug lab crisis.
“There are so many things that are unraveling now,” Hodgson, a Republican, said on a conference call organized by the Massachusetts Republican Party. “He ought to be here right now, managing the crisis.”
At the same time, with less than a month until the election, the Obama campaign believes that Patrick, as Mitt Romney’s successor, can serve as a particularly potent critic of the Republican nominee. The campaign also wants to use Patrick’s uplifting oratory to energize swing-state Democrats who may have been dispirited by Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate. He is most often deployed to speak to solidly Democratic activists and party diehards, not undecided voters.
Standing in the parking lot of a strip mall on the Hampton campus, Patrick delivered a short speech in a booming voice to about 40 Obama volunteers, part of an effort to motivate them before Monday’s deadline to register voters in Virginia.
“Show up! Make the phone calls, and knock on the doors!” Patrick exhorted. “Go and talk to your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, your cranky uncle — you know the one you’re never supposed to talk about politics with at Thanksgiving dinner.”
Along the way, he encountered some quizzical stares and murmurs of “who is that?” but also genuine enthusiasm from Obama volunteers who have seen him on the Sunday talk shows or watched his speech at the Democratic convention.
“I’ve seen you on ‘Meet The Press,’ ” one volunteer, John Rovenolt, exclaimed when he met Patrick. “You really knocked ’em dead!”
In an interview Saturday, he insisted he can govern and handle his political duties at the same time.
“I know what my day job is, and I do it, and I’ve continued to do it while I’ve been on the road,” Patrick said after giving a pep talk to about 30 Obama volunteers at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
He said, for example, that over the last three days, as he traveled to a gay rights gala in New York and to North Carolina and Virginia to stump for Obama, he had spoken to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about the rejection of the casino compact, to the former prosecutor he appointed to oversee the drug lab crisis, and to members of his Cabinet.
“So I don’t think the people of the Commonwealth need to worry about where my focus is,” Patrick said.
Through it all, he has stayed relentlessly upbeat.
On Saturday, he wore a “Virginia for Obama” button and traveled on an Obama bus with an entourage that included Reggie Love, the president’s former “body man” and a onetime Duke University basketball player.
Their first stop was a campaign office on the campus of Hampton University, a historically black college. Patrick walked from table to table, thanking the volunteers and offering words of encouragement. “He spoke at the DNC,” said Clifton Spriggs, the phone bank captain. “He’s from Romney’s hometown.”
A few blocks away, Patrick mingled with Hampton parents and alumni at a tailgate party, chatting amid the smoke wafting from grills and R. Kelly songs on a sound system.
“You spoke so well at the convention,” Jemarn Thorpe, who owns a commercial cleaning business, told Patrick. “Man, seeing you on TV, I thought you were a preacher.”
Patrick smiled and thanked Thorpe.
The governor said his next trip may be to Hofstra University on Long Island to join the media “spin room” after the next presidential debate on Tuesday. Patrick, who frequently urges Democrats to “grow a backbone” and forcefully defend their values, made clear he was not entirely happy with Obama’s last debate performance.
“The president really bends over backwards to be respectful of his challenger and of his critics, and that frustrates people sometimes, and it frustrates me, too,” he said. “But in the end, I think it’s probably better leadership.”
The governor, who was flying home to Massachusetts on Saturday night, said he is not sure where else he may be sent in the coming days. “I go where the campaign wants me,” he said. “It all blurs.”