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Correction to This Article
A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that Terry McAuliffe had described himself as a "huckster." In his autobiography, McAuliffe described himself as a "hustler."
Mr. Deeds on June 9
Of three qualified candidates in the Democratic primary, the rural state senator is the best choice.

Friday, May 22, 2009

WHO IS the best candidate for Northern Virginia? Judge by appearances and there are two obvious possibilities in the Democratic primary for governor: Brian Moran, the former Alexandria prosecutor who served a dozen years in the House of Delegates, and Terry R. McAuliffe, the Richmond outsider who has lived in McLean for roughly 17 years. Not in the running would be R. Creigh Deeds, an unassuming state senator from a district closer to West Virginia than to Fairfax City.

However, delve a bit deeper, and the answer might surprise you. In 18 years in the General Assembly, Mr. Deeds has time and again supported measures that might be unpopular with his rural constituency but that are the right thing to do, for Northern Virginia and the state as a whole. He has demonstrated an understanding of the problems that matter most, the commitment to solve them and the capacity to get things done. Mr. Deeds may not be the obvious choice in the June 9 primary, but he's the right one.

Unlike his opponents, Mr. Deeds has made clear that he would make transportation his first priority, vowing to tackle this region's greatest challenge while his political capital is at its height. His record suggests that he could make headway. Both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Moran supported the plan of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), ultimately gutted by the state Supreme Court, to generate millions in transportation funding. Last year, however, as both candidates were laying the groundwork for their campaigns, Mr. Deeds courageously voted for a proposal that included raising the state's gas tax, unchanged since 1986; Mr. Moran helped kill the bill by opposing it in committee. (Mr. McAuliffe says that he's not opposed to raising revenue for roads, but as with every other state issue, he has no record.) Mr. Deeds is in a unique position to persuade rural legislators to support a transportation funding proposal. As he once told The Post, "A gentleman from Lunenburg County called me up to say, 'I don't want my taxes to go up so they can build roads in Northern Virginia.' I said, 'Who do you think is paying for your schools?' Right now, the economic engine that has been driving Virginia has serious transportation woes. It's in the interest of every single Virginian, no matter where he or she lives, to fix that problem."

Virginia's gerrymandered districts lead to a lack of competition in elections and an aversion to compromise in Richmond. Mr. Deeds has long championed a more balanced process, introducing legislation to create a bipartisan commission to draw up voting districts. Mr. Moran has staked a claim as the candidate who would protect the environment, but Mr. Deeds has a solid record of promoting green jobs, land conservation and alternative energy research. He's supportive of wind farms off Virginia's coast, and he hasn't ruled out drilling for oil and natural gas; he would, however, insist on proper safeguards.

Some progressive voters may look past Mr. Deeds, assuming he's too far to the right on social issues. They should look again. Yes, he describes himself as a supporter of the Second Amendment. He's willing, however, to put limits on gun ownership when the stakes are highest, brokering a compromise in an effort to close the state's notorious gun show loophole. His support for abortion rights and for an amendment to prohibit the Confederate flag emblem from being displayed on state license plates are all the more impressive considering the weight of conservative voters in his district.

The knock on Mr. Deeds is that he's a nice guy -- an odd insult. The implication is that he might not be forceful enough to push his agenda through a balky legislature. Our judgment, from watching Mr. Deeds over the years, is that he is more politically astute than his "aw, shucks" persona might suggest. He has carefully studied Democratic governors who have accomplished the most -- notably Mark R. Warner and Gerald L. Baliles -- and understands how they mixed reaching out with playing tough. He's better positioned to do both than either of his opponents.

Mr. McAuliffe would be an unpredictable choice, a self-described "hustler" who has vacuumed millions from donors as a Clinton confidante and former head of the Democratic National Committee. That's not meant as a dig: Mr. McAuliffe fills a room, and it's easy to imagine him jawboning businesses to move to Virginia or lawmakers to support his agenda. He has proved that he's a quick study who can rattle off facts and figures about the state. Yet, Mr. McAuliffe's promises have been as expansive as his personality, and he has offered no realistic way to foot the bill. It's also unclear whether voters will give Mr. McAuliffe a pass for showing no interest in state politics or governance until setting his sights on the governor's mansion.

Like Mr. Deeds, Mr. Moran has backed redistricting reform and closing the gun show loophole. Particularly impressive is Mr. Moran's strong record on public safety, including advocacy for victims of domestic violence and violent crime and support for decent legal representation for the accused. Mr. Moran has a solid record as a lawmaker and has earned respect from colleagues in both parties. It's hard, though, to point to an instance when he made the politically difficult choice. Mr. Moran's positions seem to have evolved for the primary campaign: He's moved left of Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Deeds in opposing both offshore drilling and a coal plant in Surry County.

Democratic voters may wonder: How can Mr. Deeds beat presumptive Republican nominee Robert F. McDonnell, who beat Mr. Deeds in the attorney general's race four years ago? The answer: Mr. Deeds lost by a scant 323 votes out of roughly 2 million cast despite being outspent 2 to 1. This is one of only two governor's races slated for the fall, and whoever wins the primary will have plenty of cash. Virginia is still more purple than blue, and Mr. Deeds's moderate platform would have the broadest appeal.

Our judgment, though, is based on who would make the best governor in the Warner-Kaine tradition, not who would be the strongest candidate. Like those Northern Virginia senators who have endorsed Mr. Deeds -- including Janet D. Howell, Mary Margaret Whipple, J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, Charles J. Colgan and Richard L. Saslaw -- we believe that he understands Northern Virginia. We also believe that he has the character, experience and savvy to be a successful leader of the entire commonwealth.

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