Divisive Issues No Longer McDonnell's First Words

Bob McDonnell, battling a strong Democratic tide in the recent races for Virginia's highest offices, plans a campaign more moderate than his legislative record.
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In a rousing speech kicking off his run for Virginia's highest office, Bob McDonnell told a room full of Republican supporters about his plans to jump-start the economy, lower college costs, reduce traffic and preserve the environment.

"We are going to offer bold, innovative ideas to solve problems," he told an enthusiastic crowd waving red-and-blue "McDonnell for Governor" signs at the Homestead mountain resort in December.

Despite all the campaign trail fanfare, this was anything but the typical launch of a Republican campaign for governor of Virginia. In fact, McDonnell's speech was remarkable for what went unsaid. Unlike past GOP nominees, McDonnell stayed silent on almost every bedrock conservative issue -- abortion, guns, the sanctity of marriage, school choice -- the very issues that served as the foundation for his 20-year political career.

Instead, McDonnell, 54, the former state attorney general, is trying to follow the lead of successful statewide candidates, in the mold of such moderate Democrats as Mark Warner and James Webb. On the trail, he touts a record of bipartisan compromise and peppers his speeches with references to crime-fighting proposals that won broad support. Even his campaign Web site prominently features accounts of his "working effectively with" Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"I'm the same person I've been," McDonnell said in an interview from his office, where he displays a painting of George Washington with his head lowered in prayer. "I'm conservative. But conservative means that you believe in limited government and low taxes and keeping regulations to a minimum. . . . It's not just the social issues."

McDonnell's rivals are already mounting a vigorous challenge to the public image he is trying to project. Democratic candidates R. Creigh Deeds, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran are attempting to paint McDonnell as too conservative for modern-day Virginia, with its influx of suburban voters and an electorate that has recently trended Democratic.

"Bob McDonnell is from the extreme wing of the Republican Party -- a wing of the party that would rather debate divisive social issues than solve real problems for real Virginians,'' said C. Richard Cranwell, who served with McDonnell in the House of Delegates and is now chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Conservative social views used to be a staple of GOP gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia, but they've come up short in the past two campaigns. In 2001, Republican Mark Earley lost to Warner after campaigning against new taxes while talking up his support for school vouchers and opposition to abortion.

Four years ago, Republican Jerry Kilgore campaigned on the death penalty, illegal immigration and abortion. In the days leading to the election, he boasted that he was the "pro-gun-owner, anti-tax, limited-government, anti-illegal-immigration, pro-public-safety, pro-death-penalty . . . trust-the-people conservative." He lost to Kaine.

Even members of his own party say Kilgore lost because he failed to gain credibility on issues suburbanites care about: education, traffic, health care and growth.

"It's a very different Virginia today," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at George Mason University. "Any politician who is running statewide has to portray himself as a moderate centrist voice."

Republicans have been slow to adjust. Nine years ago, Virginia Republicans controlled all five statewide offices and the General Assembly. They began losing ground in 2001 and have since lost two successive gubernatorial elections, two U.S. Senate seats and control of the state Senate.

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