McDonnell Ahead in Governor's Race, Poll Finds

By Jon Cohen and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell has claimed a clear early lead over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the race for Virginia governor, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Widespread criticism of the direction of a state run for the past eight years by Democrats and an increasingly GOP-friendly electorate have propelled McDonnell, who runs competitively even in the Democratic strongholds of Northern Virginia.

Less than three months before Election Day, the poll shows that relatively few Virginia voters are following the race closely, signaling that it could fluctuate considerably between now and November. Even fewer claim deep knowledge of McDonnell, the former attorney general, or Deeds, a state senator, who are vying to succeed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Most voters have not formed an opinion or say they are apt to change their minds.

McDonnell is favored over Deeds among all registered voters, 47 to 40 percent, and is up by an even steeper margin, 54 to 39 percent, among those who say they are certain to vote in November.

In vote-rich Northern Virginia, where President Obama and other successful Democrats have won large majorities, the two run about even, 45 percent for Deeds to 42 percent for McDonnell among all registered voters. Even in the innermost Washington suburbs -- which the Democrat from rural Bath County won handily in his party's primary -- the candidates are running about even. McDonnell, who lives outside Richmond, leads by nine points in the rest of the state.

McDonnell's advantage in a race being watched nationally as an early electoral test for Obama serves as a warning sign for Democrats, who are eager to hold on to the governor's mansion in what has become a crucial swing state.

Obama, who recently visited McLean to campaign with Deeds, won the state last year by seven points, becoming the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964. But while 75 percent of Virginia voters who backed Obama said they would vote for Deeds, 13 percent said they would vote for McDonnell.

"I am what I think of as a very centrist moderate, but because the White House and both sides of Congress are controlled by Democrats, I'll do anything to make sure there's a better balance of power," said Bob Leipzig, 65, a semiretired dentist from Leesburg who responded to the poll. "I have traditionally voted Republican nationally and the man statewide, but this time it's the party, period."

With Democrats and Republicans largely sticking with their party's candidate, the race is shaping up to be a battle for the middle. The poll shows that independents tilt heavily toward McDonnell by 50 to 32, but a huge number, 69 percent, are undecided or open to shifting their support.

Fred Weck, 70, of Great Falls said he is eager for the candidates to say more about who they are and what they would do. "What I keep looking for -- a lot of politicians try not to do it -- but for them to define themselves a little more definitively," he said. "I keep reading to try to figure out what this guy really believes."

McDonnell and Deeds are campaigning as moderates who can work across party lines to solve the state's problems, particularly on the economy and transportation. Deeds has a six-point edge among those who consider themselves ideological moderates -- a group Obama won in Virginia by 17 points.

McDonnell has mapped a different course than have recent Republican candidates, spending half of his time in Northern Virginia, focusing on such issues as land conservation, and pointing out where he agrees with Obama, Kaine and other Democrats. He has avoided talking about his conservative views on social issues, many of which helped him make a name for himself as a legislator.

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