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In the N.Va. Debate, Some Questions to Answer

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

RICHMOND

Virginia's gubernatorial candidates, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, will face off in the second debate of the general election Thursday in McLean.

Hundreds of business executives will gather at the Capital One Complex for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce's traditional post-Labor Day debate. As the race heats up and voters start to tune in, here are five questions to consider while watching:

-- Whose transportation plan will better appeal to Northern Virginians?

McDonnell has been critical of Deeds for not having a funding plan in a state that is always on the lookout for money for roads and bridges.

Deeds has pledged to come up with a statewide, long-term solution in his first year in office but has offered no details. In the past, he has backed a number of plans to pump money into transportation, including new taxes, many of which did not pass the legislature.

McDonnell has proposed paying for transportation by shifting state money and relying on funding sources that don't involve tax increases, such as privatizing the state's liquor stores and adding tolls on some highways. He helped negotiate a landmark transportation package in 2007 that was designed to put $1.1 billion each year into transportation, but the state Supreme Court ruled part of it unconstitutional.

Deeds and others have criticized McDonnell for offering a plan that would take money from public education, public safety and other core services.

-- How will Deeds respond to questions about federal issues?

McDonnell has spent much of the campaign trying to force Deeds to talk about federal issues, including legislation on unions, climate change and, more recently, health care, as he works to tie him to President Obama and the Democratic Congress.

So far, Deeds has insisted that as governor he would not spend much time on federal matters and instead should talk about state issues, such as job creation, education and, yes, transportation, that will be debated in Richmond.

But that might be a tough sell in front of business executives, many of whom live and work just outside Washington.

Last week, at a candidate's forum in front of Northern Virginia corporate executives, Deeds tried to talk about tax credits and bipartisan budget deals, but he was asked a series of questions about federal issues. "I'm not focused on Washington. That's the bottom line," Deeds said.

That answer might not work in a debate where McDonnell and a panel of reporters are eager to force him to take some stands on the issues.

-- How will McDonnell react to questions about his graduate thesis and social issues?

McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis -- which outlined a conservative action plan to promote the traditional family in government that included opposition to working women, feminists and homosexuals -- created a firestorm when it surfaced three weeks ago.

McDonnell was forced to respond with a statement and then a conference call with reporters. Since then, he has tried to avoid the topic despite continued attacks by Deeds on his stances on social issues, such as abortion, and to steer the conversation back to jobs, the economy and a handful of federal issues.

If he is asked questions about the thesis -- and you can almost guarantee he will be -- will McDonnell be able to answer in a calm, relaxed way without sounding defensive or changing what he has already said? In other words, will he be able to keep on message at the debate?

-- Can Deeds win over Northern Virginia voters?

Democrats have done well in vote-rich Northern Virginia, which has helped several of their statewide candidates win in recent years. But some residents have not warmed to Deeds, despite his decisive win there in the three-way primary over two Northern Virginia candidates.

Deeds, who hails from one of the most rural parts of the state, supports gun rights, has a somewhat conservative voting record (for a Democrat) and speaks with a twang. He might not appeal to some voters in the affluent, diverse suburbs of Washington.

How will Deeds try to appeal to the Northern Virginia crowd? Will he talk about high-tech business, access to universities and transportation or will he continue to attack McDonnell on the social issues that he hopes will prove that the Republican is out of step in the region?

-- How will the candidates tout their proposals in light of the state's budget constraints?

The next governor will face a budget shortfall of proportions never seen in Virginia.

Last week, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced that he will eliminate 929 jobs, including 593 through layoffs, close three correctional facilities and cut as much as 15 percent in aid to colleges and universities to make up for a $1.5 billion gap.

The announcement marked the fourth time since the two-year budget cycle began in July 2008 that Kaine has had to scale back the state's forecast for tax and fee revenue as Virginia suffers from the worst economic downtown since the 1930s.

Deeds and McDonnell have offered a number of new -- and costly -- proposals, including doubling the governor's fund to lure businesses to the state, increasing enrollment at colleges and cracking down on crime, along with tax cuts and credits, without fully explaining how they will pay for them.

They might find themselves having to be more specific about what they would cut from the budget and how they would pay for proposals.

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