McDonnell Presses Deeds on National Issues in First Va. Gubernatorial Debate

Robert F. McDonnell, left, and R. Creigh Deeds had their first debate.
Robert F. McDonnell, left, and R. Creigh Deeds had their first debate. (Steve Helber - AP)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

HOT SPRINGS, Va., July 25 -- National Democratic policies on energy, labor and the economy and Virginia's mounting transportation needs emerged as defining issues in the race for governor Saturday as the dynamics of the campaign began to take shape during the first debate between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell.

McDonnell was on the offensive for much of the 80-minute debate, repeatedly pressing Deeds to take positions on federal measures that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and make it easier for unions to organize, both of which McDonnell said would hurt state businesses. McDonnell also knocked Deeds for refusing to propose a specific plan to pay for transportation fixes.

Deeds largely avoided the federal issues, saying the race should instead be about "what's going on around the breakfast tables" of Virginians. On transportation, he said he would bring lawmakers together during his first year to come up with a solution and criticized McDonnell's plan for diverting money from schools, something Deeds said he would not do.

The debate came at the end of the first week of intense public campaigning between Deeds and McDonnell, during which a leading Democrat announced her support of McDonnell and seven retired GOP lawmakers who had served with both candidates endorsed Deeds.

Deeds and McDonnell served in the General Assembly together for years, and this contest is expected to be as hard-fought as their 2005 race for attorney general, which McDonnell won by 360 votes. The race has drawn the attention of both national political parties, whose leaders believe it will be an early indicator of how voters feel about President Obama's leadership.

Meeting at the Homestead resort before the annual convention of the Virginia Bar Association, each man sought to portray himself as a bipartisan consensus builder, a strategy that Democrats have used to win several recent Virginia elections.

In a debate that touched on taxes, gun control, abortion, education and same-sex marriage, it was McDonnell who praised Obama and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), commending the former for championing charter schools and the latter for his handling of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.

Deeds had little to say about Kaine -- whose final year has been marked by rising unemployment and criticism over his work as chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- and instead pledged to govern in the mold of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D). Warner's victory in the 2001 gubernatorial race began Virginia's Democratic trend, and his signature achievement -- a 2004 tax increase for improved core government services -- was opposed by McDonnell.

Although Deeds sought to avoid being tied to some of the policies of his national party, he highlighted comments McDonnell has made praising the economic policies of President George W. Bush.

"I just want to know: Where have you been the last eight years?" Deeds asked. "Why do you think something that didn't work for this country will somehow work for Virginia?"

McDonnell said he did not agree with all of Bush's policies but reaffirmed his belief that tax cuts are the right way to respond to an economic recession.

Deeds faces a difficult challenge in holding together a coalition that includes newly engaged liberals eager to support Obama's agenda and a pragmatic business community that has given Democrats their recent election victories but is now anxious about the state of the economy.

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