Virginia Race for Governor Acquires Washington Backdrop

In Saturday's debate, Republican candidate for governor Robert F. McDonnell, left, tried to corner Democrat R. Creigh Deeds on controversial federal issues.
In Saturday's debate, Republican candidate for governor Robert F. McDonnell, left, tried to corner Democrat R. Creigh Deeds on controversial federal issues. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Amy Gardner and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 27, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell made a bet at his first debate in the Virginia governor's race Saturday: that turning the contest into a referendum on President Obama's increasingly contentious national agenda will sway the election.

Time after time in the ballroom of the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., McDonnell raised federal issues, trying to force Democrat R. Creigh Deeds to take positions on greenhouse gas emission limits, union elections, the federal stimulus package and health-care reform. The aim is to lure Virginia's crucial bloc of pro-business moderates, many of whom voted for Democrats in recent statewide elections but are growing increasingly alarmed at Obama's policies.

"Socialized medicine" is being debated on Capitol Hill, McDonnell said. "New intrusions into the free enterprise system" have emerged in Obama's response to the recession. Federal legislation making it easier for unions to organize "undermines our right-to-work laws, and every employer in Virginia agrees with me on that," he said.

"It's not just a federal issue," the former state attorney general added as he pressed Deeds for his views, "because when Congress passes things, it affects Virginians."

The strategy puts Deeds in a tricky spot. A conservative Democrat and state senator from rural Bath County, Deeds won a three-way primary last month in part by positioning himself as a middle-ground pragmatist -- and by avoiding entanglements with Obama's agenda. But that becomes more difficult in a general election, in which Deeds hopes to capitalize on the passion many Democrats feel for Obama, who was the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win the state and who will make his first campaign appearance with Deeds next week.

So far, Deeds has avoided taking hard stands on a number of federal issues.

On Saturday, he commended the emissions bill's goal of slowing climate change, but he also praised Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) for his role in adding stronger protections for businesses and jobs. Deeds offered no opinion on the version that passed the House of Representatives but said broadly: "In a recession, anything that's going to raise energy prices for consumers and put businesses at a competitive disadvantage is not a good thing."

Similarly, on health care, Deeds said that he wants more people covered but that he also wants to be sure to help small-business owners who fear that reform will saddle them with new costs.

And when McDonnell demanded that he take a stand on pending federal legislation to make it easier for unions to organize workers, Deeds demurred: "I'm not running for Congress." Deeds said the measure would not affect Virginia's right-to-work laws, which he supports, but would protect workers' right to organize, particularly as a way to push workplace safety issues.

"Bob tries to raise the specter of right to work," Deeds said. "I have a long history of being a strong supporter of the right-to-work law. It's given us a competitive advantage and brought jobs to Virginia, there's no question about that."

McDonnell's strategy has become increasingly apparent in recent days. Last week, while accepting the endorsement of Democratic business leader Sheila Johnson, McDonnell said his chances of winning over Virginia's business community have been improved by Obama's big-spending agenda.

The support of Virginia business, a crucial constituency, has shifted away from the GOP in recent years and toward such Democrats as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, who promised to protect the state's business-friendly climate while working to improve schools and alleviate such problems as traffic congestion.

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