In Va. Democratic Primary, Deeds Must Make the Most of His Rural Roots

Sen. Creigh Deeds' strong ties to rural Bath county could help him win statewide, but his conservative positions on guns and gay marriage, plus his self-effacing style, could hurt him with more liberal Democratic primary voters.
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

WARM SPRINGS, Va. -- Across a huge swath of central-west Virginia, where mountains and farms give way to interstates and cities such as Charlottesville, he is known simply as Creigh.

Folks here remember his first campaign for the House of Delegates, when he went from hollow to hollow carrying treats to distract menacing dogs. They relate to his conservative and populist views.

In a place where muddy pickups sport "Redneck and Proud" bumper stickers, and huntin' and fishin' are among the most prized avocations, people say state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds is the only candidate for governor who really understands rural Virginia, because he is the only one of the four running who is from there.

But if being from rural Virginia is one of Deeds's best assets, it might also be his biggest weakness. As Deeds pursues the state's highest office against better-known and better-funded opponents, even admirers question how his down-home, aw-shucks style will play in Northern Virginia. They wonder whether his low-key, earnest approach will be a match for hard-charging Democratic primary opponents Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe.

Deeds's opponents characterize him as a nice guy but subtly depict him as a bumpkin whose conservative views are out of step with modern Virginia. They doubt that suburban voters will be much impressed by his proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee Virginians the right to hunt or by a previous endorsement from the National Rifle Association. They like their odds in a debate, believing that Deeds's unpolished style might be a turnoff in big media markets.

Then there's the question of demographics: When large numbers of newly registered urban and suburban voters have helped elect back-to-back Democratic governors, add two Democrats to the U.S. Senate and put Virginia's Senate under Democratic control, is the rural vote still important in a Democratic primary?

Four years ago, when Deeds ran for attorney general, rural Virginia helped him more than any other Democrat. But it wasn't quite enough. He lost by 360 votes out of 1.9 million cast in the closest election in the state's modern history.

"I think Creigh Deeds is making the best of something that two or three decades ago would have been an asset," said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. "But in recent years, and especially in the last decade, the suburban voice has become dominant in Virginia politics. Deeds can say, 'I'm the only one who represents the rural segment of Virginia.' But on the other hand, that's not the part of Virginia that's growing."

Deeds's home is worlds away from the clogged roads and glass towers of Tysons Corner. Sprawling over 540 square miles in the Allegheny Mountains, Bath County has not a single stoplight. The U.S. Census Bureau put its population at 4,635 two years ago, a drop from 5,048 in 2000. Get on any road, and strangers are liable to wave as you pass by.

Like the mineral water bubbling up from the county's namesake baths, certain values infuse rural life here, including an abiding respect for tradition, devotion to religion and family, and a sense of stoicism and self-reliance. Humility is a virtue, too.

"I think when you grow up in a small town, you can't afford to make enemies. You volunteer. You go everywhere with a covered dish," said Anne E. Adams, publisher of the Recorder, a weekly newspaper that serves Bath and Highland counties. She said those habits come through in Deeds's earnest style, but so does the sense that Deeds sometimes seems ill at ease on the campaign trail talking about himself and his accomplishments.

"Here, if you were that kind of cocky, they'd say, 'You're spreading yourself,' " Adams said.

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