If Politics Is the Question, a Debate Might Provide Answers

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

In some ways, a political campaign doesn't really get started until the two candidates share a stage and debate in front of a studio audience.

By that measure, this year's race for governor will begin Saturday at 11 a.m. sharp, when Republican former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell and Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) meet for the first of what promises to be several debates before the Nov. 3 election.

Here are five questions that could be answered Saturday:

-- Will the candidates debate debating at the debate?

It's become part of the Kabuki theater of modern-day campaigning, the call and response of debate challenges and accusations of debate ducking. McDonnell got out of the gate on this one early this year, calling for 10 debates in an attempt to send a message that his articulate and telegenic speaking style will match up well against Deeds's more unpolished and halting approach. Deeds responded that he would not let McDonnell dictate his schedule but agreed the two would probably meet three times, the same number as during the 2005 governor's campaign.

After some bad press, Deeds announced this week that he would be attending 10 forums and debates and challenged McDonnell to appear as well.

It's unclear whether voters ever follow these debates about debates or care much about the outcome. Saturday's event will be 75 minutes long. Will either candidate expend some of those precious minutes discussing their schedule?

-- Who will invoke the president's name?

McDonnell has raised eyebrows by using the name of the popular president of the opposite party in connection with some of his education proposals, like merit pay for teachers -- supported by President Obama.

But poll numbers show that the popularity of Obama's policy proposals has started to soften. How are Virginians, who backed Obama in November and handed the state to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 40 years, feeling about the president these days? Deeds and McDonnell will give some indication of what they think Saturday.

If Deeds declines to tell voters what a strong partner he would be to Obama, who has promised to help elect his fellow Democrat, that might indicate Deeds fears that Obama's stock is dipping. Likewise, if McDonnell attacks the president or his policies, that will indicate he thinks Obama has become less formidable. If either candidate chooses to associate himself with the Obama name, it will indicate they think November's glow has not faded.

-- Does setting matter?

The first debate of the campaign season is always hosted by the Virginia Bar Association and always held at the historic Homestead resort in Hot Springs. Usually, that's about as neutral a ground as you can find in Virginia, smack in the middle of the state's second least populous county. Not this year. Bath County, home of the Homestead, is also the home of Creigh Deeds. But the audience will be lawyer types from across the state, usually a pretty conservative crowd. Does Deeds get a warmer reception because he's a few miles from home? Does it matter if he does?

-- State vs. federal?

McDonnell has worked hard to stick Deeds with every federal program advanced by national Democrats that might have iffy support in Virginia: car company bailouts, union card check legislation, the cap-and-trade environmental bill. Deeds, on the other hand, keeps insisting Virginia's governor would spend little time on such things and says the campaign should focus on issues that will take center stage in Richmond.

If debate moderators and audience members ask the candidates a significant number of questions on federal issues, it will be a sign that McDonnell is successfully shaping the conversation of the campaign.

-- Who will put forward the grander plan for improving roads?

It's been the central political gridlock issue for years. Deeds has backed a number of plans to pump revenue into transportation, none of which passed the General Assembly.

Now he's promising a special session to come up with a statewide, long-term solution. But he has not backed a specific funding proposal. McDonnell, on the other hand, put forward a plan this week that would reprogram state money and rely on funding sources that don't involve tax increases (privatizing Virginia's state-run liquor stores is the marquee idea). Democrats and some experts have said the plan doesn't involve enough money to fix Virginia's roads.

One plan is specific but possibly not workable; the other is vague but takes nothing off the table. Which man will make a more persuasive argument for his approach?

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