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.
McDonnell questioned whether the stimulus package has made a measurable difference in Virginia, and he rapped his rival for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in union donations.
McDonnell has been careful to avoid invoking the president's name, choosing instead to target "Washington" or the "Democratic Congress" when pressing Deeds on federal issues. In fact, the Republican's few mentions of Obama during the debate Saturday were favorable. He praised the president's position on charter schools and his promotion of responsible fatherhood.
McDonnell's approach to Obama underscores the challenge facing Deeds. The Democrat needs to navigate federal issues cautiously while capitalizing on Obama's popularity.
"Deeds has to be careful not to be seen as running away from Obama, who is, oh, by the way, pretty popular in the state," said a senior White House official.
The official, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal political assessments, said Obama can be very helpful to Deeds, especially when it comes to raising money and generating support among the many first-time voters who helped Obama win the state last year. Obama could also help Deeds win over African Americans, who generally did not favor Deeds in the Democratic primary.
Obama's grass-roots political committee, Organizing for America, released a video this month titled "It's Time" that promotes the president's health-care proposals and features the stories of three Northern Virginians. About the same time, Vice President Biden traveled to the Richmond area to argue that the federal stimulus package is working. (Biden also appeared at a private fundraiser for Deeds.)
Deeds's difficulty in navigating his relationship with the Obama White House is complicated by the fact that Kaine serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine's role as a chief promoter of Obama's agenda makes it harder for Deeds to cast himself as the natural successor to the Democratic governor without seeming to embrace the president's policies.
Deeds spokesman Mike Gehrke said the candidate is not running from Obama's initiatives so much as focusing on issues that Virginia's governor has control over: easing congestion, improving public schools, managing state government.
"It's a stretch to say that these [federal issues] will come across the governor's desk," Gehrke said. "It's kind of like asking him his position on a baseball team. He's got one, but it doesn't really matter."
Gehrke said Deeds plans to raise a handful of federal issues that are more relevant to the job. Among them are McDonnell's position that Virginia should not accept $125 million in federal stimulus money to enhance unemployment benefits and the Republican's opposition to abortion rights and federal funding of stem-cell research.
The Deeds campaign will also try to tie McDonnell to national Republicans, who continue to have problems reviving their image.
On Saturday, Deeds hammered McDonnell for recent statements praising the economic policies of President George W. Bush.
"Bob, last month you said that your model for governance was George W. Bush and his economic policies," Deeds said. "You said that they worked well for this country. And I just want to know: Where have you been the last eight years? Why do you think something that didn't work for this country will somehow work for Virginia?"
In addition to being viewed as a measure of Obama's popularity, the governor's race is being watched for what it portends about next year's congressional elections and the presidential campaign in 2012.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.