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Plain and Simple, Deeds Stumbles In N.Va. Debate

By Robert McCartney
Friday, September 18, 2009

If you're a candidate for governor coming to debate in Northern Virginia, you'd better be able to say simply and plainly how you'd raise money to repair and improve the roads. Democratic State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) failed to do that Thursday. In fact, he bungled it pretty badly. He managed to sound both vague and two-faced about the most important issue in the race for the Washington region.

It's too bad, because as governor Deeds would be more likely to actually fix the roads than his Republican opponent, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell. That's because Deeds is willing to raise taxes for transportation, while McDonnell isn't, and some kind of tax increase is the only way to do the job.

But Deeds certainly didn't explain that clearly Thursday. When asked directly by moderator David Gregory of NBC News whether he would raise taxes if necessary in the current economic climate, Deeds said: "No, I'm not going to raise taxes. But I am the only person on this dais who will sign a transportation plan that raises new money."

Huh? When I and other reporters pressed him afterward to clarify, he said he meant only that he wouldn't raise taxes for the state's general fund, which pays for a broad range of services, including education and law enforcement. That clearly left open the possibility that he'd raise taxes for the transportation fund, which is separate.

Even then, though, Deeds tried to have it both ways. In one breath he told reporters, "I have no plans to raise taxes." In another he said, "I intend to sign" a bill that "raises new money for transportation." That sounds like a plan to me.

Deeds also got a bit testy with a reporter who pressed him about whether he'd be ready to increase the gasoline tax. He's supported that before -- to his great credit, in my view -- but he wouldn't say so Thursday.

"I think I made myself clear, young lady. I don't know," Deeds said. The McDonnell campaign immediately began showing the clip to the press corps. Their message: You don't like what our guy wrote in 1989 about working women? Look at how Deeds treats working women today! Deeds later apologized to the reporter.

Deeds's performance underlines weaknesses as a candidate that are especially relevant to Northern Virginia. In effect, Deeds is a poor salesman for superior wares.

For Washington's Virginia suburbs, Deeds's platform is preferable to McDonnell's. He's more committed to protect education funding than the Republican. His social views, especially his pro-choice stance on abortion, are more in line with those of the region. He's moderate overall on business policy, and, as I said, he's more likely to do what's needed on transportation.

In trying to make the sale, though, Deeds comes up short -- especially in the two debates so far. On Thursday, he struggled at times to provide focused answers and occasionally seemed overly excitable. He didn't offer the kind of poised leadership style that would appeal to his audience of Fairfax business executives.

His campaign hopes that Deeds comes across as warm and authentic, and perhaps that will work in the two final debates in October, both in prime time. For now, however, Deeds doesn't sound like someone genuinely aware of how overburdened roads regularly paralyze this region. I was reminded of that by the stalled traffic around Tysons Corner that delayed me as I left the debate site in the early afternoon.

McDonnell came across, as usual, as controlled and crisp -- but at times evasive. He made now-familiar points to turn aside questions about the strong, Christian, conservative views he expressed in his master's thesis 20 years ago. In particular, he again referred to the women employed on his staff and his daughter who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq to deflect concerns about his assertion in the 1989 academic paper that it was "detrimental" to the family for mothers to work.

McDonnell seeks to cast himself as the victim on this issue, saying he's "insulted" by questions about it. That dodges the fact that the issue has arisen because of words that he wrote, even if it was 20 years ago, and he won't go into detail now about how and why his views have evolved.

When I asked him immediately after the debate to say whether it was okay for mothers with small children to work outside the home, McDonnell initially declined to answer. Later, McDonnell's campaign provided a quote from him via e-mail saying he "strongly" supports working women, "including those with young children." Asked to expand on how his views have changed from 1989, he said only: "Any indication that I gave in that paper that I didn't think women should work, I absolutely fully repudiate."

McDonnell also acted as though his transportation plan offered a realistic alternative to raising taxes. It doesn't. Its proposals -- such as privatizing the state liquor stores and depending on offshore oil drilling revenue -- are insufficient, unrealistic or both. Deeds was right to say he's the only candidate who's willing to work to provide "new" money for the roads.

This debate featured more vigor than the last one, and less focus on national issues. Still, McDonnell took advantage of opportunities to link Deeds to some of the Democrats' national policies, such as the cap-and-trade energy plan and union card-check legislation. Deeds stoutly insisted that he opposes the current energy bill and wants to preserve Virginia as a right-to-work state.

In one telling example of the risk the national party poses to Deeds, moderator Gregory pressed him to say whether he was "a Barack Obama Democrat." Deeds demurred, saying he was "a Creigh Deeds Democrat." That might help win over independents worried about big spending in Washington. But Deeds surely could use some of Obama's oratorical talents when it comes to telling the voters what he wants to do.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at robertmccartney@ washpost.com.

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