Democrat Deeds Struggling in N.Va., a Must-Win in Governor's Race

Gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds's campaign hopes his speech Friday at GMU about education, abortion and the economy wins over skeptics.
Gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds's campaign hopes his speech Friday at GMU about education, abortion and the economy wins over skeptics. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Sandhya Somashekhar and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 21, 2009

Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds is running behind his Republican opponent in a recent Washington Post poll in large part because he has yet to win over voters in populous, Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia.

Voters across the region say they know little about the state senator, who grew up in sparsely populated Bath County near the West Virginia border, despite his run for attorney general in 2005 and a high-profile party primary in the spring. Much of what they do know about Deeds -- his rural roots, his embrace of gun rights -- doesn't quite click with many people in the affluent, diverse suburbs of Washington.

"Where is he? What is he waiting for?" asked Tari Kovacs, 59, of Manassas, who supports Deeds but is not enthusiastic about him. "A lot of these candidates have been around. I don't see him around here, I just don't. And I am concerned, because here's a guy who's from southern Virginia with very conservative values even though he's a Democrat."

Deeds is scheduled to make a major campaign speech Friday at George Mason University, touching on the economy, abortion and education and drawing sharp distinctions between his record and that of his Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell. His campaign expects that the remarks will have particular resonance among Northern Virginians who might be skeptical about his candidacy.

As the state's most reliably Democratic area, Northern Virginia ought to be fertile territory for Deeds. The region has gone strongly for several Democrats in recent years, leading Virginia to send two Democratic senators to Congress and support Barack Obama for president.

Yet Deeds, whose folksy background helped him succeed as a Democrat in the conservative territory of far western Virginia, faces a cultural hurdle farther north. Understated and twangy, a gun rights advocate who recently bragged about his experience operating on farm animals, Deeds has a persona that evokes a landscape far from the high-tech corridors and immigrant-packed shopping centers of Arlington and Fairfax counties.

"As far as my circle of people I hang out with . . . they want to feel like they're electing someone who's not coming out of the boondocks of the South," said Frank Rathgeber, 39, a Web developer from Alexandria. "We want to see a little more blueness in his purple."

The cultural and geographical gulf has not been a problem for Deeds, campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee said. Barely known outside his Senate district earlier this year, Deeds went on to win a three-way primary decisively, exceeding expectations and defeating two Northern Virginia candidates in their back yard.

"In the primary, a lot of critics said, 'Wow, this is a guy who could never connect with Northern Virginia Democrats,' " he said. "Where he came from didn't end up mattering. I suspect what Northern Virginia voters are going to be voting on is not so much the geography of where he's from but are you in touch with what the concerns are in that region?"

Deeds said he's balancing the attention he gives to Northern Virginia with demands from elsewhere. "Everywhere I go, people say I'm not spending enough time in their area," he said. "There's only one of me. I'm doing the best I can."

But former congressman Tom Davis (R), who is supporting McDonnell, said Deeds's background would be a problem for voters in the region. "He's very rural in terms of his lifestyle and his culture and his roots," Davis said. "People here don't get up in the morning and ask if I can go hunting and fishing."

In the Washington Post poll, Deeds had his best showing among suburban Washington voters, running about evenly with McDonnell, who is a native of Fairfax County. But if he's going to follow the successful strategy of other Democrats, Deeds will need to establish a clear lead in Northern Virginia to win. Deeds does better in Northern Virginia than elsewhere on handling issues such as transportation, the economy and gun control, although he lags behind the former attorney general on taxes.

Although his background might not be a natural for Northern Virginia, it could help him in other areas. He began the month with a "Deeds Country" tour of the heavily Republican reaches of southern and southwestern Virginia. Any extra votes there might make up for potential losses in the Washington area and Hampton Roads, where McDonnell's political career started.

It would hardly be unprecedented for Northern Virginians to back someone who is not their own. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who served as the mayor of Richmond before becoming lieutenant governor, garnered 60 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia.

In Kaine's case, though, it resulted in part from a year-long strategy aimed at Virginia's suburbs. Many Northern Virginia voters recall those handshakes with Kaine, who was marginally ahead in Northern Virginia about Labor Day but whose popularity surged so much in the region that it catapulted him to victory two months later.

The first time Burke resident Gary Harding met Kaine was at a Cub Scouts event with his son months before the 2005 election, he said. The second time was in early fall, at a fundraiser in the backyard garden of an acquaintance from Fairfax. Harding exchanged a few words with the now-governor and left with a bumper sticker, a yard sign and the sense that Kaine "had a leadership quality that was transcendent."

Harding said he knows little about Deeds. As a strong supporter of abortion rights and Obama, he is committed to supporting the Democratic candidate, he said, but he acknowledged that he has been less enthusiastic about Deeds than he was about Kaine at this time four years ago.

"I haven't done anything for him," said Harding, 48, a software salesman. "It's not apathy, exactly. I don't feel like there's been much engagement. The noise level has been low enough that it hasn't built up into a call to action, I guess."

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