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.
Given a name passed down from a Confederate hero, Robert Creigh (pronounced Kree) Deeds, 51, was born in Richmond, where his father was a police officer. Deeds's mother moved with him and his younger brother to her native Bath County after separating from her husband, living in a trailer at Rock Rest, a farm in her family since 1803. She remarried and had another son, became a mail carrier and still makes the rounds. His father sells cars in Charlottesville.
Deeds saw politics up close through his grandfather, who headed the Bath County Democratic Party, and confided to friends his belief that a poor kid like him could go from a trailer to the White House.
After college and law school, Deeds returned to Bath and became commonwealth's attorney and then a state delegate in 1991. In 2001, he won a special election to fill the late senator Emily Couric's seat.
Deeds, who often has run as an underdog, has said he can gain the nomination for governor by winning a sizable portion of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads while Moran and McAuliffe split the rest.
Key to his campaign is his contention that he has unique credibility with rural Virginians. That would, for instance, enable him to build support for spending money on Northern Virginia's transportation problems.
"There's a certain advantage, because he's clearly the rural candidate," said Mark Rush, head of Washington and Lee University's politics department. "I think what actually helps him is you've got Moran and McAuliffe, and both are from up north. He may literally be able to divide and conquer."
Yet Deeds also faces a statistical disadvantage. Demographic changes have swelled cities and suburbs, particularly in Northern Virginia.
"If you need votes in Northern Virginia, you just walk around the block, and you have 10,000 votes," Rush said.
The bedrock values and unquestioned traditions of rural Virginia can also clash with those in more urban and cosmopolitan regions.
Although Deeds has championed abortion rights and environmental causes, he also opposed the ban on buying more than one handgun a month. And he voted at least five times for a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil unions, which he later said he regretted.
On the stump, Deeds also points out that he is the only candidate in the Democratic race who has been tested statewide. He lost the 2005 contest with Robert F. McDonnell (R) for attorney general by the narrowest of margins after being outspent 2 to 1. The post is traditionally easier for law-and-order Republicans to win -- reason enough, Deeds argues, for a rematch with McDonnell, who is the GOP candidate for governor.
Results from the 2005 race reveal the advantages and challenges of the rural candidate. Along Virginia's western spine of mountains, Deeds outperformed the other members of the Democratic ticket, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Leslie L. Byrne, in 37 rural counties, including many that later voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over President Obama. Deeds did better than Byrne, a Northern Virginia liberal who ran for lieutenant governor, in 35 other counties, including sparsely populated areas in the Upper and Lower Neck and central Virginia.
But in cities and suburbs such as Northern Virginia, Deeds lagged. In Loudoun County, which Obama won last year, as had Kaine and Byrne, Deeds lost.
A few weeks ago, appearing before several hundred Arlington County Democrats at the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association building in Ballston, Deeds led with a riff on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, saying the cooperatives it created brought electric power to rural homes like his grandparents' and modernized the South.
"It really is one of the great accomplishments of government, of our notion that government lifts people up," Deeds said.
But then his words ran together as he hastened to cram his legislative achievements into his five-minute speech. His hands began jabbing the air like six-shooters.
Barbara A. Favola, chairman of the Arlington County Board, was not impressed, saying Deeds failed to distinguish himself or even mention his endorsement from state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), whose name might have meant a lot to the crowd.
"There wasn't a message there," Favola said. "He left the stage, and I was thinking, 'What the hell?' He missed connecting with his audience."
Favola said Deeds should have emphasized his strongest argument: electability, especially since he ran statewide four years ago and lost by a whisker.
But Deeds had tried to make that point, his message perhaps lost in a torrent of words as he told the Arlington Democrats that they needed a candidate who could beat McDonnell "in every corner of the commonwealth."
"With your help," he said, "I can be that candidate."