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.
Deeds has sought to appeal to independents by trying to portray McDonnell as outside the mainstream on such issues as abortion, which he raised in campaign stops last week. But the poll shows that Deeds's plan has yet to yield benefits. Fewer than three in 10 view McDonnell as too conservative, which is less than the number of respondents who view Deeds as too liberal.
McDonnell has spent much of the campaign trying to force Deeds to talk about controversial federal issues, including legislation on unions, climate change and health care, as he works to tie him to Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Deeds has distanced himself from issues in Washington while pledging to follow in the footsteps of the last two Democratic governors, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Kaine. The two remain popular among voters in the state -- with 68 percent and 55 percent approval, respectively -- but traditionally optimistic Virginians are now about evenly split on the direction of the state: Forty-seven percent believe Virginia is on the right path, while 45 percent are pessimistic.
Deeds receives the support of most of those who are positive about the state's direction. But McDonnell is winning by a wider margin among those holding a negative view. The Republican also picks up nearly a third of voters who approve of Kaine's job performance, on top of about three-quarters of those who disapprove.
The economy is issue No. 1 in the campaign, with voters about evenly split between Deeds and McDonnell on dealing with it. Health care, which has dominated national politics for the past month, is the second most-frequently mentioned issue in the governor's race, followed by education, transportation and taxes.
Northern Virginia's traffic woes push transportation issues up the ladder to second place in that region. Voters in Northern Virginia give Deeds a six-point edge on handling road and transit issues, with a quarter expressing no opinion or trusting neither of the two candidates.
McDonnell has proposed paying for transportation fixes in part by privatizing the state's liquor stores and adding tolls on some highways. Deeds has pledged to come up with a solution in his first year in office but has offered no funding plan and has been criticized for not saying whether he would raise taxes.
The poll shows that Virginians are split on which candidate would best handle the economy and other top issues, with large numbers undecided on who has the edge in dealing with transportation and abortion. McDonnell has an advantage on taxes and guns.
Peggy L. Wall, 75, a retired hospital worker from Vienna, calls herself an independent and said she is leaning slightly toward McDonnell because she believes he can create jobs.
"The next governor, he has to bring jobs to Virginia, and I'm not talking about the metropolitan area,'' she said. "I'm talking about the entire state, including the southwestern part of Virginia, where they really need jobs."
Ken Woollard, 51, an antiques dealer from Portsmouth, said he is leaning toward voting for Deeds after his business was hurt by the recession, partly because of the rising cost of health care. "I just feel like Deeds would be the one who would look forward and would really have a grasp on the economy," he said.
The Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 11-14 among a random sample of 1,002 adults.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.