McDonnell's Strategy in Va. Race: Stay on Message, Practice Non-Engagement

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

RICHMOND -- When Democrat R. Creigh Deeds began attacking his rival on abortion and other social issues in the Virginia governor's race, Republican Robert F. McDonnell refused to respond beyond saying that the actions were those of a desperate, flailing campaign.

McDonnell ignored Deeds's criticisms about his role in the state's legendary budget battle of 2004. He did the same when Deeds accused him of embracing President George W. Bush's economic philosophy.

Two weeks ago, after McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis surfaced, he was forced to respond to the firestorm that his past views on working women, feminists and homosexuals created -- but only briefly. He held a conference call with reporters to answer questions and then insisted, despite continued attacks by Deeds, that he had moved on.

"He's talking about former presidents and former governors and divisive social issues,'' McDonnell said. "He's talking about things people don't care about. So why would I engage him?"

Each time Deeds attacks, McDonnell criticizes Deeds's actions and sidesteps those issues as he tries to stay above the fray and focus solely on jobs, the economy and a handful of federal measures. McDonnell's strategy has proven difficult the past two weeks after the release of the thesis, but the campaign insists it's the right one.

Jerry W. Kilgore, former attorney general and the GOP nominee for governor in 2005, said Republicans have advised McDonnell to avoid a natural inclination to respond to the attacks and instead remain disciplined in his message. Getting bogged down on abortion and other social issues would only make him vulnerable, Republicans say.

"I don't think he should be engaging Deeds on issues Deeds wants to talk about," Kilgore said. "He does not need to answer."

With less than two months before Election Day, McDonnell has the advantage in a race being watched nationally as an early electoral test for Democrats -- including President Obama and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- who are eager to hold on to the governor's mansion in what has become a crucial swing state.

Discontent about the country and the state, run by a Democratic president and governor, and an increasingly Republican-friendly electorate are helping fuel McDonnell's early lead over Deeds in virtually every poll.

McDonnell's strategy to avoid engaging Deeds stems from his hope that the national mood can carry him at least for the time being, until voters start paying attention to the race closer to Election Day, observers say.

"He's riding the national wave," said Rhett Walker, a Democratic political consultant in Virginia who is not involved in the race. "If the mood is so poor and people say, 'I'm not going to vote for a Democrat,' then he doesn't need to change his strategy. He's in the foxhole. He is not going to expose himself until he needs to."

Deeds and McDonnell have said they think the race will center on the troubled economy, but both candidates have veered away from that issue in recent weeks as they try to energize their base and work to woo crucial independent voters.

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