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Va. Candidates Reach Out to Rural Voters at Labor Day Parade

Virginia's political candidates joined high school cheerleaders, pint-size beauty queens and Shriners driving miniature cars at Buena Vista's Labor Day parade. The event marked the unofficial beginning of campaign season in Virginia, which means increased campaign stops, media appearances and advertising are on the way.

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By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BUENA VISTA, Va., Sept. 7 -- Virginia's political candidates joined high school cheerleaders, pint-size beauty queens and Shriners driving miniature cars at this mountain town's parade for Labor Day, the traditional kickoff to the fall campaign.

The gubernatorial candidates, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, spoke at local party pancake breakfasts before traveling the two-mile parade route surrounded by hordes of T-shirt-wearing, slogan-chanting supporters who injected the spirit of a big-time campaign rally into a small piece of Americana.

Deeds and McDonnell have 57 days to woo voters. Both are focusing on the economy, transportation and education as they battle for the governor's mansion in a critical swing state.

Throughout the day, Republicans tied Deeds to a national Democratic Party that they are convinced is losing ground in Virginia, where last year voters backed a Democrat for president for the first time in more than four decades. They said Deeds would support soaring government spending, Democratic efforts to reform health care and federal cap-and-trade energy legislation.

"You know [state Sen.] Deeds is going to be carrying water for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid,'' McDonnell told hundreds of spectators munching on fried chicken and turkey legs at a park pavilion after the parade. He was referring to the House speaker and Senate majority leader, respectively.

Deeds rejected the notion that he would be an ally of Washington, promising instead to stand up for rural areas including Buena Vista -- 40 miles from his home in Bath County and part of the district he represents. Among the thousands of colorful campaign signs erected in the early morning hours on hillsides and along the parade route were posters that declared the area "Deeds Country."

"I'm not sure I'd know either one of them if I saw them, except I've seen them on television," Deeds said of Pelosi and Reid. "I'm sure they wouldn't know me."

The campaign has been running relatively smoothly for McDonnell, a former legislator who lives outside Richmond. He had the Republican stage to himself while three Democrats competed for their party's nomination. He has dubbed himself a potential "jobs governor" and campaigned as a moderate who can work across party lines to solve the state's problems.

Deeds has pledged to govern in the pragmatic bipartisan mold of former governor Mark R. Warner and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats. But after a euphoric come-from-behind win in the June 9 primary, Deeds has struggled to break through. Poll numbers have shown him trailing McDonnell as President Obama's popularity has slipped.

"He wants government to take over,'' said Jane Ryman, a resident holding a blue McDonnell sign.

Deeds has tried to sharpen contrasts with McDonnell by criticizing McDonnell's conservative record on social issues, including abortion. His campaign received a boost last month with the publication of McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate school thesis in which he wrote that working women, feminists and homosexuals were detrimental to the traditional family. McDonnell has dismissed the thesis as irrelevant to the campaign and sent a visual message Monday by surrounding himself with dozens of female supporters wearing pink McDonnell shirts.

In Virginia, which has an election every year, attending "Laborfest" in this town of 6,000 at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains has been a rite of passage for statewide candidates for 39 years -- the opportunity to prove their mettle at classic retail politics.


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