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At a recent candidates forum, he tried to relate to a roomful of farmers by telling them that his childhood neighborhood in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax was once part of George Washington's farm and that he represented rural south Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates. Both statements are true.

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"This is part of a trend," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "Bob McDonnell is trying to be all things to all people."

Daschle said McDonnell does the same thing when he talks about issues. He pushed conservative social issues as a state legislator but in the governor's race has tried to follow the lead of recent successful statewide candidates -- all of whom happen to be moderate Democrats, including U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and James Webb -- and tout more centrist issues.

Phil Musser, a political consultant who works to elect Republican governors nationwide, praised McDonnell for reaching out to different people. "Let's remember, if you are elected, you are governor of all the people, not just some of the people."

Deeds said McDonnell is trying to paint himself a certain way, but his values differ from those of a majority of Virginians, particularly in suburban areas such as Northern Virginia. This week, Deeds began attacking McDonnell's record of working to restrict abortions, to highlight those values.

"My opponent has the wrong priorities for Virginia," Deeds said. "He's consistently pursued a divisive social agenda, while blocking transportation solutions and taking money away from our schools."

Craig Bieber, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said McDonnell's strategy "speaks to the importance of the middle-income suburban voters to the outcome of this elections." Bieber said suburban voters make up well over half of the state's electorate and may decide the election.

Deeds's strategy includes winning Northern Virginia, along with moderate support in the state's traditionally more conservative rural areas. McDonnell's strategy includes winning rural areas, along with moderate support in suburban areas such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, has described McDonnell as "an incredibly strong candidate," partly because of his connections to the state's two most populated areas, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, as well as his prior success in running a statewide campaign and his high approval ratings.

McDonnell narrowly beat Deeds in the 2005 attorney general's race, partly by winning the outer suburbs of Prince William and Loudoun counties.

"Any time you can slice into the other guy's margin, it can make or break the race,'' said Democratic strategist Kristian Denny Todd, who worked on Webb's 2006 campaign.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.


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