McDonnell Races Even Further Ahead of Deeds in Va.

Robert F. McDonnell visited Arlington on Tuesday for a rally at the Army Navy Country Club hosted by veterans. With him is one of his daughters, Jeanine.
Robert F. McDonnell visited Arlington on Tuesday for a rally at the Army Navy Country Club hosted by veterans. With him is one of his daughters, Jeanine. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 9, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell has taken a commanding lead over R. Creigh Deeds in the race for governor of Virginia as momentum the Democrat had built with an attack on his opponent's conservative social views has dissipated, according to a new Washington Post poll.

McDonnell leads 53 to 44 percent among likely voters, expanding on the four-point lead he held in mid-September. Deeds's advantage with female voters has all but disappeared, and McDonnell has grown his already wide margin among independents. Deeds, a state senator from western Virginia, is widely seen by voters as running a negative campaign, a finding that might indicate that his aggressive efforts to exploit McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis are turning voters away.

Much of the movement since last month has come in Northern Virginia, where Deeds's 17-point lead has been whittled significantly, even in the area's left-leaning inner suburbs.

The poll indicates that the GOP is well-positioned to emphatically end a recent Democratic winning streak, with Republicans Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli each holding identical 49 to 40 percent leads over Democrats Jody Wagner and Steve Shannon for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The survey reflects the trend of the campaign over recent weeks. After being on the defensive since his thesis was published in late August, McDonnell has been able to retake momentum by focusing on issues, such as the economy and transportation, and articulating his vision to voters. McDonnell has been aided by airing twice as many campaign ads in Northern Virginia.

By double-digit margins, voters say that he would better handle virtually every major issue facing Virginians, including transportation, taxes, education, the state budget and the economy. Only on issues of special concern to women does Deeds hold a tepid 47 to 41 point advantage.

Also in recent weeks, Deeds has struggled in several appearances in Northern Virginia, including a debate last month in Fairfax County that he followed by bungling questions from reporters about whether he supports a tax increase. That lengthy scene has been turned into a campaign commercial by Republicans and is airing across the state.

To clarify, he penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post, in which he said he was willing to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements. It was a rare and risky position for a Virginia candidate, and one that puts him out of step with voters, a majority of whom said they oppose paying more in taxes for roads and transit.

Deeds has also failed to consolidate support from fellow Democrats: He did not win the endorsement of former governor L. Douglas Wilder, President Obama has not committed to campaigning for him in the final weeks of the race and prominent party members have been openly criticizing the focus and tone of his campaign.

There is now a widespread perception that Deeds's campaign has taken on a decidedly negative tone -- 56 percent of voters say he has been running a negative campaign. Six of 10 voters say McDonnell's effort has been mainly positive. A new ad released by Deeds's campaign Thursday begins with an assault on McDonnell's transportation plan before turning to Deeds's vision.

"With Deeds, I don't feel like I know much about him," said Irene Murphy, 28, of Springfield, a poll respondent who said she voted for Obama last year and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 but is leaning toward McDonnell this year. "I don't feel like he's run a campaign that gives me a good idea of where he stands on certain issues. I feel like he's been so focused on making McDonnell look bad that he's made himself look bad."

There are some openings for Deeds. His failure to attract voters who have backed Democrats in recent elections means there is a large pool of potential voters for him to win over. Only half of those who backed Obama a year ago are certain to vote in November.

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