By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
In campaign literature mailed recently to Northern Virginia residents, Robert F. McDonnell touts himself as a "governor that Fairfax County families can be proud to call their own." In another mailer sent to Hampton Roads residents, he touts himself as "a governor Virginia Beach can be proud to call our own."
But McDonnell, the Republican nominee for governor, doesn't live in Fairfax or Virginia Beach. He lives in Henrico County, just outside Richmond.
McDonnell grew up in Fairfax, represented Virginia Beach in the General Assembly for 14 years and then moved to Henrico when he was elected attorney general in 2005.
He has been campaigning aggressively in Virginia's suburban core, hoping his strong ties to the state's three most populous areas, and support from traditionally conservative rural areas, will give him enough votes to carry the state in November.
"I'm really the candidate who has really lived his whole life in suburbia," he said in a recent interview. "Fairfax and Virginia Beach, the two largest jurisdictions in the state, and now Henrico. I want to make sure that people know that's my background. I understand the problems of suburbia."
That has his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator who hails from rural Bath County in the western part of the state, grumbling.
"When he's in Northern Virginia, he sends flowers that say 'I'm from Fairfax.' He sends flowers in Virginia Beach that say 'I'm from Virginia Beach,' " Deeds said. "He lives in Henrico County."
McDonnell ran nearly identical biographical television ads in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in the spring. In Northern Virginia, he mentioned the "principles molded growing up in a middle-class Fairfax County neighborhood." In Hampton Roads, he mentioned "a family raised in a middle-class Hampton Roads neighborhood."
McDonnell stands by his ads and his strategy, saying the facts are on his side.
"I have strong connections in the two most populous areas of the state,'' he said. Deeds "may not like that, but it's true. . . . It's a consistent biography."
Democrats complain that McDonnell's modus operandi is to try to appeal to everyone, instead of standing up for who he is.
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.
"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.