Robert McCartney: Tough Issues Call for Sharper Teeth in Va. Governor's Debates

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, July 26, 2009

HOT SPRINGS, Va., July 25 The first debate in the high-profile race to be Virginia's next governor proved to be spirited and sharp but also well mannered. The candidates, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell (R) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), know each other well and seem likely to conduct the campaign with mutual respect for now.

That's a shame, because some of the candidates' positions deserve rude dismissal. McDonnell endorsed the economic policies of President George W. Bush -- you know, the ones that led to the worst recession in seven decades. Deeds said his No. 1 priority is transportation -- but refuses to spell out how he'd address it.

In many respects, the substance of the one-hour contest Saturday repeated the same stale arguments that have dominated Virginia politics for years. The discussion suggested that neither party has advanced in its thinking about key issues at stake this year.

In fact, each candidate tried in his own way to avoid talking specifically about what he would do in Richmond if elected in November.

McDonnell focused not on Virginia but on activities of the national Democratic Party in Washington. Criticizing proposals at the federal level for a "cap-and-trade" energy policy, union election rule changes and what he called "socialized medicine," McDonnell seemed to want to run against Democrats in Congress rather than Deeds.

The strategy suggests that the GOP believes it can capitalize on a backlash against the Democrats among moderate swing voters in Virginia eight months after those voters gave the state to President Obama. That was the Democrats' first win in a presidential contest here since 1964.

Deeds suffered from his choice not to detail how he would find money for road improvements and other transportation needs. He criticized McDonnell's transportation plan on the familiar grounds that the GOP would sacrifice education for roads and said transportation would be his top priority in his first year as governor.

Then, however, he essentially asked voters to trust that he would succeed where others have failed: persuading the state legislature to cooperate. His strategy seems to be to imply strongly that he would raise taxes -- there are "a lot of options," he said, wink, wink -- without saying so directly.

The candidates' dodges are especially unfortunate given that the problems are more serious and pressing than in recent governor's races. The recession has pushed Virginia's unemployment rate above 7 percent, the budget is under severe pressure and the need to act on the roads grows steadily more acute.

There's been one significant change from past races: McDonnell is not trying to rev up the conservative Christian evangelical base by pushing strongly on such social issues as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Despite his background as a protege of Christian broadcaster and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, McDonnell is trying to position himself as a moderate concerned mainly about the economy.

Interestingly, Deeds didn't make a big effort here to cast McDonnell as a social conservative. Although he said McDonnell had supported more than 30 bills to restrict abortion rights, the name "Pat Robertson" was not mentioned.

McDonnell succeeded in devoting much of the debate to topics where he felt he had an advantage, especially Democrats' positions in Washington. He left himself vulnerable at one point in talking about national economic policies, however. McDonnell said Bush's tax cuts produced an "economic revival in America" in the middle part of this decade. "In fact, it almost overheated the real estate market and the stock market in that time," he said.

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