RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday gave his strongest endorsement yet of the Trump-shy Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia.

In a pair of tweets, Trump said Ed Gillespie would improve Virginia's economy, be "strong on crime" and "might even save our great statues/heritage."

Trump also attacked Gillespie's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, as being "VERY weak" on crime and someone who "doesn't even show up to work."

"Ed Gillespie will turn the really bad Virginia economy #'s around, and fast," Trump tweeted.

They were Trump's most expansive comments about this year's only competitive governor's race, a contest that could serve as an early referendum on the president's political popularity.

Gillespie is a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush and a lobbyist who has largely kept mum on the president so far, fearful of alienating Virginia's moderate voters. When Trump endorsed Gillespie's campaign on Twitter earlier this month, Gillespie downplayed it as a nonevent and has declined to say whether he plans to invite the president to campaign with him.

White House officials have said there are no current plans for Trump to campaign alongside Gillespie before the November election. The president would have a limited window for any last-minute decision to travel to Virginia: He's departing for a five-nation trip to Asia just before the Nov. 7 election.

Democrats have made the president a key talking point in the Virginia campaign, hopeful that anti-Trump sentiment will help Northam in the only southern state Trump lost last year.

"Speaking of not showing up, Ed Gillespie treats you like a communicable disease and you haven't shown up for the most important race of '17," Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe responded to Trump in a tweet of his own. McAuliffe by law cannot seek a consecutive term.

While keeping Trump at a distance, Gillespie has tried to excite Trump's supporters with hard-edged attack ads that Trump mirrored in his tweets.

Gillespie has accused Northam of being "weak" on gang crime by immigrants living in the country illegally. He also highlighted Northam's support for removing Virginia's numerous Confederate monuments, an issue that gained prominence this summer following a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville over the proposed removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Trump's tweets also hit on a central dispute between the campaigns over the state of Virginia's economy. Gillespie points to stagnant wage growth as proof of a bleak economic picture, arguing that tax cuts and fewer regulations are urgently needed. Northam touts progress made under McAuliffe, including a low unemployment rate, while promising increased investments in education and struggling rural areas.

James V. Koch, an economics professor and president emeritus of Old Dominion University, said "there's some truth" to Trump's tweet about the state's economy but added, "it's not entirely that way."

Virginia's heavy dependence on slowed federal defense spending has hurt the economy but the state "appears to be turning a corner," Koch said. He also noted that factors beyond any governor's control, like federal spending and international trade, have the biggest short-term impact on economy.

"A governor simply doesn't have any control over them," Koch said.

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Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed from Washington.