Candidates For Governor Get Fast Start
Each Says the Other Appeals to the Fringe of His Party

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

RICHMOND, June 10 -- Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell began outlining the broad themes of their campaigns for governor Wednesday in a race that will focus heavily on jobs and the economy and take on national political significance for both parties.

Just hours into the general election, Deeds told hundreds of sign-waving supporters at a rally here that he would bridge partisan and regional divides in the mold of two moderate Democrats, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner. McDonnell conducted a series of drive-time radio interviews to tell listeners that he would serve as a fiscal watchdog bent on reining in spending in Richmond.

The candidates were quick to begin trading accusations that their opponent appealed to the fringe of his party. McDonnell, Deeds said, opposes abortion rights, stem cell research and federal stimulus money. "The contrast this fall could not be more stark,'' he said. "Bob McDonnell has a social and economic agenda that will take us back."

McDonnell, in turn, said Deeds would be a poor steward to guide the state through a recession. "My philosophy is to keep taxes, regulation and litigation low," he said. "He set a record of doing something different."

The two men spoke once, cordially, shortly after Deeds addressed supporters Tuesday night to celebrate winning his party's nomination in a blow-out election. "I just said, 'Bob, I look forward to a clean, fair fight,' " Deeds said.

But Wednesday foreshadowed what could become a fractious general election.

In a state where a decade of trend lines have shown the northern suburbs exerting increasing political power, Deeds and McDonnell both signaled that much of the fall campaign will be fought over who best appeals to Northern Virginia voters. Deeds bases his claim on the region in part on the fact that he won a majority there Tuesday. McDonnell says he's a natural fit because he grew up there. "I'm the Northern Virginia candidate,'' McDonnell said during one interview.

Even before the Democratic primary had ended, though, Democrats had started revving up efforts to peg McDonnell as a social conservative and embarked on $3 million TV campaign describing him as a candidate who would be unfriendly to working people.

Republicans, who appeared to be caught off guard by Deeds's come-from-behind victory, began distributing information immediately to reporters Tuesday night, describing the new Democratic nominee as a candidate who would spend recklessly and increase taxes.

Deeds, they said, backed a 2004 tax package helmed by Warner that resulted in new investments in state services. Deeds also has backed a succession of proposals to use new tax dollars for transportation. Last year, he voted for an ultimately unsuccessful proposal to raise the gas tax by 6 cents over six years. The vote came while gas prices were high. Republicans signaled that the gas-tax vote could become a highlight of their campaign.

That vote was the first bullet point on a Republican Governors Association e-mail welcoming Deeds to the race. The e-mail was headlined "Deeds: High Taxes, Unelectable."

Also immediately clear yesterday was that Virginia's high-stakes governor's race -- one of two statewide races in the nation this year -- will draw aggressive involvement by national leaders in both political parties.

A morning rally Deeds held with Kaine and the two men he defeated, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran, was cut short so he could take a phone call from President Obama. Anita Dunn, a top Obama adviser, said the president pledged to campaign for Deeds and host a fundraiser for him. "We plan to help in any way we can," Dunn said.

"It was pretty cool," Deeds said of the chat. "I like him a lot. He was just personable. He offered help. He had ideas. He had watched this campaign. He was knowledgeable about the approach we took to things."

Democrats are eager to score the first major win since November, when Virginians voted for their first Democratic president in more than four decades. Republicans see an opportunity to weaken Democratic control in Washington and Richmond.

Speaking on background, a top White House aide said Deeds's ability to perform well in Northern Virginia was heartening to Obama's senior staff because it suggests he can do well there in the general election. Had Deeds performed poorly in Northern Virginia, the aide suggested, there might have been reason for concern.

Deeds, a state senator from one of the most rural parts of the state, beat McAuliffe and Moran despite a pro-gun stance and the most conservative positions of the three men.

He was virtually ignored by his rivals for months as polls repeatedly showed him in a distant third place. But he received a surge of momentum in the race's final weeks after he aired statewide TV ads and received the unexpected endorsement from this newspaper. Donations began pouring in, and Deeds was able to quickly retool his strategy to add more events and a TV ad blitz in Northern Virginia.

Wednesday morning, top staffers and supporters of McAuliffe and Moran attended the rally wearing dark-blue Deeds stickers. Members of the exuberant crowd cheered as Deeds arrived and held massive blue letters spelling their new standard-bearer's name.

On a conference call with reporters, Ed Gillespie, chairman of McDonnell's campaign and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said McDonnell would put forward a positive vision, forged in bread-and-butter pocketbook issues and not social controversies. He will run on a promise to begin oil drilling off Virginia's coast, expand charter schools, cut government spending and maintain Virginia's right-to-work laws.

"If [Deeds is] going to run on the old tired policies of the Democrats -- higher taxes, no offshore drilling, no choice in education, let's give out doles instead of jobs -- if he's going to run on those, this is going to be a fun campaign for the Republicans to get involved in," said Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins.

Staff writers Dan Balz, Rosalind S. Helderman, Fredrick Kunkle, Michael Laris and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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