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Deeds Needs to Look Beyond Thesis, Seize A Key Issue

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Although he has just enjoyed his best week in months in his race to become Virginia's next governor, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds is in trouble if he thinks the unearthing of opponent Robert F. McDonnell's 1989 Christian conservative master's thesis was a "macaca moment," sure to sink the Republican in November.

For all the damage the thesis has caused McDonnell, particularly with female voters, he still has a lot going for him as the campaign enters high gear after Labor Day. The public's desire for change, which put Barack Obama in the White House, has been aiding the Republicans -- especially in Virginia, where Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion for two terms.

McDonnell has also shown himself to be a disciplined campaigner. He will likely benefit from his polish as a debater in three planned matchups with Deeds, starting Sept. 17 at the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

Deeds has another problem: He lacks a signature issue. He seems to think he can win just by promising vaguely to continue the tradition of Democrats elected the last times around, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and incumbent Tim Kaine.

That won't be enough. Virginia voters historically have favored candidates who talked about substance with some specifics. Warner and Kaine promised to fix the state's finances, among other things. Republican predecessors, George Allen promised to abolish parole and Jim Gilmore ran against the car tax. Deeds can't rely only on saying he's not the guy who disapproved of working mothers, contraception and homosexuality in an academic paper 20 years ago.

The race is important even for those outside Virginia. It's attracting national interest and financing as the country's most consequential political contest this fall and an early referendum on the Obama administration. For the Washington region as a whole, it could determine whether the roads in Virginia used by nearly all of us are repaired and improved.

It's not clear yet how much impact the thesis has had with voters, but it put McDonnell on the defensive at the end of a heady summer in which he has held a comfortable lead in the polls. He is benefiting in part from a shift to the GOP by some independents unhappy with massive new federal spending by Democrats in Washington, according to opinion surveys consulted by the two campaigns. Also, hunger to regain power is energizing Republicans, the surveys show.

The Deeds campaign is gearing up to make sure the thesis remains prominent. Expect to get really familiar with television and radio ads about the research paper and about McDonnell's opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

McDonnell is scrambling to put the issue behind him, lest it become his "macaca"-- the term famously used by Allen to describe a young man of Indian descent at a campaign event when he was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2006. The videotape of the incident went viral on the Internet and contributed to Allen's defeat.

To avoid that fate, McDonnell needs to be more explicit about how and when his views about women, sexuality and other social issues evolved since he was a 34-year-old graduate student.

One irony about the thesis uproar is that while hot-button social and cultural issues animate Democrats and Republicans alike, they don't occupy a lot of a governor's time. One practical matter that could be affected: As state attorney general, McDonnell criticized Kaine for issuing an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. McDonnell says he opposes such discrimination but believes it's the General Assembly's responsibility rather than the governor's. Democrats say McDonnell's conservative social views could also affect his appointments, such as to boards of state universities.

The GOP also would have a better chance of passing legislation to restrict abortion if McDonnell were governor. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates regularly approves such bills, but they go nowhere because Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate and hold the governor's mansion.

To his credit, McDonnell's handling of the controversy was textbook political crisis management. In the two days after the story broke, he took questions from reporters until there weren't any more. Then he stopped discussing it on the grounds it was old news.

Deeds's strategy is to stress that conservative religious cultural goals have been McDonnell's priority throughout his career. "The other guy has been on a real crusade as a legislator to advance a social agenda," Deeds said in a brief interview after a campaign appearance Friday in Manassas.

Asked to name his signature issue, Deeds seemed uncertain. First he said transportation but then immediately mentioned the economy and jobs.

"Education also is a signature issue," Deeds continued. "There are so many issues. It's all bound together with this notion that we restore confidence in the economy."

He's going to have to do better than that. He could start by getting specific about his roads plan in time for the Fairfax debate. And McDonnell needs to say straight out that it's fine for moms to work outside the home.

Safe for Now

Despite all of the Metro system's travails, transit board sources said General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. is currently at no risk of losing his job. Speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a personnel matter, the sources praised Catoe for his calm, resolve and skill and said it would be hard to find a superior replacement. His main shortcoming? He needs to improve communications with both the board and the public.

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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