By Rosalind S. Helderman and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds will launch a campaign this week to portray his opponent's longtime efforts to restrict abortion as out of the mainstream, a potentially risky strategy for a Democrat in the once solidly conservative state.
Deeds (Bath), a state senator who supports abortion rights, said he will join female supporters in Annandale on Monday for the first of three events across the state where he will argue that Republican Robert F. McDonnell devoted too much of his 17 years in public office working to limit access to abortions. McDonnell has said he is against abortion in every instance, including rape and incest, except when the life of the mother is in danger.
Deeds's appeal is directed at moderate suburbanites in Northern Virginia and elsewhere who might be turned off by McDonnell's views. It's also an attempt to rally support from Democrats who have joined Virginia's electorate in recent years but who might be ambivalent about Deeds because of his relatively conservative positions on guns and other issues.
The effort is also designed to undercut one of the main themes of McDonnell's candidacy: that he is a moderate who would concentrate on jobs and the economy if elected.
"I think it's an area that shows a clear distinction between us," Deeds said in an interview Saturday. "I'm a moderate guy, and I've been a consensus-builder my entire career. . . . My opponent is the guy who has pursued a socially driven ideological agenda who now is masquerading as a centrist."
McDonnell said Saturday that Deeds's approach is the desperate act of a flailing campaign, noting that both men said at their first debate two weeks ago that they would not focus on social issues in the race.
"While I'm spending all my time talking about jobs and the economy and education reform and transportation, he is now beginning a run to the left to try to motivate his base," McDonnell said. "He talked about not engaging in the politics of division, but, of course, that's exactly what he's doing."
The early statewide pitch by Deeds is a bold gamble that the demographics and politics of Virginia have shifted so quickly and decisively that raising a divisive issue such as abortion, which Republicans attempted to use to their advantage for much of this decade, is now favorable to Democrats. Although advocates on both sides of the issue rank Virginia as one of the more restrictive states on abortion, a Washington Post poll in September found that 60 percent of Virginia voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a number that has not changed significantly in recent years.
Deeds's strategy is a departure from the approach that worked for the state's past two Democratic governors, who generally played down touchy social issues and focused instead on the issues they said voters cared about more: traffic, schools and other quality-of-life issues.
Deeds said it's important for voters to be aware of McDonnell's deep commitment to antiabortion causes. As an example, he pointed to a speech McDonnell delivered to the National Right to Life Committee in Arlington County last year, in which the then-attorney general saluted "all you pro-life warriors for Virginia for all you've done to turn Virginia around and make it a pro-life state."
McDonnell told the group that victory in state elections was the key to their cause, saying that "while you're on this Earth, we need your help at every election. . . . Those policymakers with the votes determine whether or not you're going to have a pro-life state where protections are given to the unborn consistent with federal court decisions or whether you're going to have a different kind of policy."
Deeds said the speech shows McDonnell says one thing to his conservative base and another to other voters. "I mean, when is he speaking the truth?" Deeds said.
McDonnell said Deeds was "flat-out wrong" to suggest his rhetoric has shifted on the issue. McDonnell said he was applauding the group's members for helping to enact "common sense provisions that have broad-based agreement" on the issue and that it is Deeds's opposition to the laws that is extreme.
Both elected to the General Assembly in 1992, the two men have long held contrasting positions on abortion.
In his years as a delegate representing Virginia Beach, McDonnell sponsored or co-sponsored numerous pieces of legislation on the topic, including a ban on late-term abortions, a requirement that minors receive parental consent before getting an abortion and a mandated 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion. All three passed the General Assembly.
This spring, he spoke out against his alma mater, Notre Dame, for awarding an honorary degree to President Obama (D), who supports abortion rights, because, he said, Obama's views appeared "to be in great conflict with the Catholic social teaching."
As a state lawmaker, Deeds supported notifying parents when their minor child sought an abortion but opposed requiring minors to receive a parent's consent. He opposed a ban on late-term abortions that did not include an exception for cases when the mother's health was in jeopardy. He supported allowing emergency contraception, the so-called morning-after pill, to be distributed at health centers at public colleges.
Deeds said Saturday that he would like abortion to be rare but favors no further legal restrictions on the practice and that he believes the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion should be upheld. McDonnell, who has said his beliefs are driven by his Catholic faith, would not say whether he believes the 1973 federal decision should be overturned, calling it an issue that the "Supreme Court would have to decide." He said that he would "uphold the laws of the land" on the issue but that his position is clear: "I have been a pro-life legislator. I have been a pro-life attorney general."
One risk of Deeds's strategy comes in finding a way to cast McDonnell as too consumed with abortion without appearing to be overly consumed with the issue himself.
"I think he's got to be cautious about opening that line of attack," said Del. David E. Poisson, a Democrat who won his Loudoun County district in 2005 against an opponent who was largely defined by his opposition to abortion. Poisson said the key to his victory was respectfully steering clear of the issue in favor of a discussion of roads and schools.
"The thing you worry about when you start going down that path is you look as small as the argument," said Poisson, who backed former delegate Brian J. Moran over Deeds for the Democratic nomination.
There are risks for McDonnell as well. An excessive focus on social issues is widely believed to have hurt Republicans in some recent elections. But if he shies away from his record on abortion and other social issues, voters might conclude his moderate rhetoric is merely a campaign-year makeover. He could also risk alienating the most energetic part of the conservative base.
"If he wants people to go door to door, if he wants people to talk favorably over the back fence, he can't be silent about these issues," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), the assembly's most vocal member on the issue. "Silence is ignoring people."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.