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.
Betting that Virginians have grown wary of Democratic economic policies less than a year after a Democrat carried the state in the presidential race for the first time in 44 years, McDonnell successfully steered much of the conversation to federal bills that he said would hurt the state's economy.
He said Virginia needs a governor who would resist congressional encroachment, citing "socialized medicine," "micromanaging AIG, GM and some other large businesses," the cap-and-trade proposal to limit greenhouse emissions and "card-check" legislation backed by labor, which would end secret balloting for workers deciding whether to join a union.
"I tell you, whether it's a Republican or Democratic Congress, it doesn't make any difference to me," McDonnell said. "As governor of Virginia, if there are policies generated at the federal level that are bad for Virginia, kill jobs and hurt our business and hurt our citizens, I will stand up against them."
Deeds said he would oppose cap-and-trade legislation if it would result in higher energy costs during a recession, a position that could trouble environmentalists in his party. He also said he was confident that federal lawmakers would not pass union reforms without protecting secret balloting in union elections -- the provision that most worries business owners.
More broadly, he argued that such discussions have a limited place in a race for Richmond's top job. "As much as you talk about what's going on in Washington, I wonder whether you're running for Congress or governor of Virginia," Deeds said.
On the key issue of unclogging Virginia's roads, McDonnell put Deeds on the defensive for his claim that he would solve the transportation problem in his first year in office by building a consensus in the General Assembly rather than by advancing his own ideas. McDonnell suggested that Deeds's silence masks his intention to raise taxes for roads and transit, an approach Deeds has supported in the past.
"He's got a wish list. He doesn't have a plan," McDonnell said, at one point even urging debate watchers to visit Deeds's Web site so they could see for themselves.
Deeds said after the debate that putting forward a funding plan would be a "lightning rod" that would kill reform. He said he would succeed by relying on relationships built during 18 years in the General Assembly and his ability to get fellow rural lawmakers to agree to direct more money for suburban highways and transit, a risky strategy for voters eager for a solution.
But McDonnell faces his own challenges on transportation. Last week, he proposed paying for fixes through new toll roads, diverting existing state revenue from other uses, and privatizing and selling state-run liquor stores -- ideas that have been strongly rejected in the past, in part because many would take money from schools and other core services.
"My friend talks about his commitment to education but . . . he'll pit schoolchildren against transportation," Deeds said.
Both candidates shied away from social issues, insisting that their campaigns would center on quality-of-life issues and improving the economy. Deeds did note that during 15 years as a Virginia Beach delegate, McDonnell supported 35 bills to restrict abortion and opposes the practice even in cases of rape and incest. Deeds backs abortion rights.
Echoing the tone of abortion rights supporter Obama on the issue, McDonnell said he believes that people of goodwill can find agreement on the issue. But he accused Deeds of being "outside the mainstream" in opposing bills to ban late-term abortions and to require parental consent for minors seeking abortions.