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Two Groups of Women Help Put the Race Into Focus

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Washington Post convened two focus group conversations Wednesday in Fairfax County to discuss the Virginia governor's race. Each group included about a dozen women who consider themselves political independents, one with mainly undecided voters and those leaning toward R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, the other with a mix of undecided and those tilting toward Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican. The women were recruited by Metro Research Services of Virginia and compensated for their time in keeping with standard practices for this type of research. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 66 and came from across Northern Virginia and from a variety of backgrounds. Discussions were moderated by Washington Post pollsters. Highlights of the women's comments about McDonnell's graduate school thesis, the candidates and the campaign are below.

OPINIONS ABOUT McDONNELL'S THESIS

In both groups, many participants expressed deep misgivings about the views McDonnell offered in his 1989 graduate school thesis, in which he wrote that feminists and working mothers were "detrimental" to the family. The poll found that for many, the thesis will not be a deciding factor in their vote, but most Virginia women disagree with the thesis's policy ideas concerning women and gay people.

In the focus groups, many of the Deeds-leaning voters considered the thesis a deal-breaker, a glimpse into what they said they thought were McDonnell's "core" beliefs -- ones that disqualified him for public office.

Sally Amster, 59, of Annandale said: "I couldn't vote for someone who espouses his views. It's just too scary, what he would do."

Among those leaning toward McDonnell, however, some took a more nuanced view, allowing for the possibility that McDonnell could have changed his mind in the intervening 20 years or that his personal convictions would not interfere with his governing. Others said he merely used overly strong language to bolster reasonable positions. Nevertheless, most were troubled by some aspect of what they had heard about the paper.

Ashli Suprise, 22, of Bristow said she would be watching for evidence that McDonnell's views had changed or grown more "mature" so he can "actually help the state rather than just start implementing . . . his ideas."

Some voters attributed the attitudes espoused in the 93-page document to McDonnell's Catholic faith and concluded that those were personal beliefs not necessarily indicative of the way he would govern. Others faulted Deeds for using the thesis repeatedly in his political ads, calling the constant attention a "smear."

Carol W. Beemer, 66, of Manassas said actions speak louder than words: "I don't care what you say you believe. What's your voting record? And I haven't seen that so far for either" candidate.

But Jacqueline Watts, 48, of Woodbridge, a Deeds-leaning voter who considers herself a centrist, said the thesis didn't concern her as much as the evidence that McDonnell pursued some of the goals it outlined. "I've written extreme things [in] papers, just to get a rise out of the instructor," she said. "But after finding that he was actually following through on it -- now, that was the thing" that gave her pause.

IMPRESSIONS OF CANDIDATES

Participants varied greatly in the depth of information they had about the governor's race and the candidates.

For some of the Democratic-leaning voters, McDonnell's thesis was all they needed to know about the Republican candidate.

"I think he's scary and he's anti-female," said Jane D. Malik, 59, of Alexandria. "I would be very concerned about what he would do to women, against women. . . . And, granted, this is 20 years old. But I just can't imagine that everything in his heart has changed."

Malik acknowledged that she knew very little about Deeds. Her view was echoed by many of the women in the groups, who seemed to have little familiarity with the Bath County senator and said information about him was scant.

"I hadn't heard of him. I saw the signs kind of pop up, and I'm like, 'Uh, who is this person?' " said Malissa Brennan, 24, a Fairfax resident who said she typically votes Democratic. She said she recently heard that Deeds is focused on education issues. "Education is a big word for me, so sometimes I'll pay attention to whoever says it's their primary focus."

Deb Wiker, 46, of Fairfax, who said she is undecided in the race, had this to say about Deeds: "He's a guy with no plan, but he has a good heart. He's a good ol' boy."

Some who favored McDonnell said it was because his conservative views largely mirrored their own. "McDonnell may be a tad more extreme than I would like. At least I know I'm kind of close to that," said Margaret Carmichael, 44, a stay-at-home mother from Clifton who works part time at her child's school.

THE ISSUES

Many in both groups described traffic as their top concern -- perhaps reinforced by the rush-hour traffic they battled to get to the Wednesday evening focus group meetings in Fairfax. But several expressed a deep cynicism about their political leaders' ability and will to solve the region's congestion issues. Some were worried that Deeds, as a native of western Virginia, would not be sympathetic enough to the transit needs of Northern Virginia.

"I don't know that people who haven't lived in Northern Virginia and been in the day-to-day rush-hour traffic can understand it," Beemer said. "Some people I know from southwestern Virginia that have come up here and they get in the rush-hour traffic, they think it's an accident. Because that's the way it is at home if there's an accident. But they don't know that it's our day-to-day operation."

Ardenia Lewis, 43, of Dale City described small success offset by bigger setbacks. She said that the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project has eased congestion but that the Springfield interchange has not and that the current Capital Beltway construction is making matters worse.

Other frequently cited issues were education and taxes. Some complained that budget cuts were having a negative impact on schools and that real estate tax bills were rising despite a drop in assessments. More associated Deeds with education and McDonnell with lower taxes than the other way around.

The economy and jobs are voters' top concerns in the election, according to the new poll, but few in the focus groups expressed a strong view on which candidate could better lead the state out of its economic doldrums. Lisa Schumann, 36, of Bristow said, "I think that I need more information to say." She also wondered how much a governor could do to make a difference.

-- Jennifer Agiesta and Sandhya Somashekhar

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