Contest Will Play Out on a National Stage in the Fall

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When they last ran against each other four years ago, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell were little-known local politicians who battled to within 323 votes of each other out of 2 million cast in a race for attorney general.

This time, the two men with deep roots in the state will not only battle for Virginia's highest office, but will do so in an election that is expected to draw intense national attention and be viewed as a bellwether for the Democratic Party.

Their 2005 race for attorney general was dominated by law-and-order issues. Now, the campaign will emphasize the serious pocketbook concerns facing Virginia voters and will trace the themes that dominated the primary: jobs, the environment, energy.

Already, the two have unveiled competing plans to expand access to college and have signaled that they will fight to convince Northern Virginians that they are best positioned to solve transportation woes.

Their past go-round, which ended with a lengthy recount that left Deeds embittered and itching for another opportunity to knock off McDonnell, could carry with it a sense of déjà vu, with closely matched rivals battling into the fall.

"I think we had previews and coming attractions last time," said longtime Northern Virginia GOP strategist J. Kenneth Kling. "This time will be a real barnburner."

Within minutes of Deeds's victory, the fuse was lit.

His victory speech included pointed shots at McDonnell, saying that the general election would pose a "very stark choice" and suggesting that he would continue to tie the GOP candidate to the "disastrous" economic and social policies of the Bush administration.

"I will never turn my back on the children, the seniors and the working families who are the backbone of our middle-class economy," Deeds said.

In a taped video announcement distributed after the results were in, McDonnell congratulated Deeds, but he also made a point of listing the positions that are likely to distinguish his campaign from his opponent's.

"This campaign is saying yes to new jobs for our citizens," McDonnell said. "Yes to offshore drilling and more energy. Yes to charter schools and performance pay and to real education reform, and yes to greater access and affordability at our colleges and universities to serve our young people better."

The campaigns will also almost certainly become personal.

Deeds lives in a sparsely populated county on the West Virginia border, a heritage that brings with it a stammering, unpolished earnestness. His adversaries have been poking fun at recent TV commercials featuring him staring silently into the camera -- suggesting that Northern Virginians might be turned off merely by his heavy drawl.

McDonnell has a long record as a social conservative, serving as a former protégé of religious conservative icon Pat Robertson and attending the Regent University law school. Democrats have signaled an interest in highlighting that background in a state that has pushed to the center on social issues.

Republicans have begun suggesting that Deeds's defeat by McDonnell just four years ago means he is vulnerable.

In 2005, the suburbs of Loudoun and Prince William counties were crucial to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's victory. Deeds didn't carry either county. The fall race will probably be waged there once again, and McDonnell is preparing to tout himself as the candidate who can convince suburbanites that he understands their concerns.

"McDonnell's image and family-oriented ads are made to order for suburban voters," said Larry J. Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "Deeds's rural demeanor and twang do not naturally attract well-educated suburbanites."

This year, the race will unfold on a national stage.

McDonnell will campaign with a parade of Republican presidential hopefuls. Deeds will have new allies at his side as well: two popular Democratic senators, a well-liked Democratic governor who can also bring to bear the resources of the Democratic National Committee, and a figure Democrats hope will deliver Deeds to the governor's mansion: President Obama.

Although there is also a competitive governor's race in New Jersey, strategists in both parties see Virginia as the contest more likely to shape perceptions heading into the midterm election year of 2010.

"The stakes truly couldn't be higher," said Phil Musser, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "It has all the elements to make the case for the legitimization of the Obama governing philosophy and strategy, or the beginning of a GOP comeback. As such, this will take on a much larger life of its own."

The Virginia battle should also quiet pundits who thought the commonwealth was turning into a deep blue Democratic state. Both men have conservative credentials -- Deeds has in the past been endorsed by the National Rifle Association -- and both will have to work to build connections to Northern Virginia, home to most of the state's voters.

Republicans will also seek to convert one of Deeds's strengths -- voters' perception that he is the natural heir to the popular Kaine -- into a weakness. During Kaine's four years in office, new investment in transportation foundered, unemployment rose amid the national recession and students paid more in tuition at public colleges.

Experts expect the November race to see unprecedented levels of spending by the national parties. The Democratic Governors Association has invested about $3 million on independent expenditure ads attacking McDonnell and has signaled plans to spend freely between now and November. The DNC will also be directly involved in helping assemble a coordinated campaign aimed at turning out the Democratic vote and will probably launch independent expenditure ads of its own.

National Republicans have been just as aggressive in funneling money into the race. The Republican Governors Association has contributed about $2 million to McDonnell's campaign, while the Republican National Committee has given him about $1.5 million.

Republicans had been eager to pin Democrats' hopes on McAuliffe, whose previous political experience has been as chief fundraiser and confidant of President Bill Clinton. Clinton failed to carry Virginia in either of his presidential elections. They trained all their fire on McAuliffe during the Virginia Republican convention last month. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) joked that McAuliffe had sought to buy the executive office after spotting "Virginia's governorship pop up on eBay."

No one mentioned Deeds.

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