By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; A01
RICHMOND, Oct. 12 -- Democrat R. Creigh Deeds sought to regain momentum in the race for Virginia governor Monday night by aggressively attacking Republican Robert F. McDonnell on transportation, women's issues and several other fronts during their first prime-time debate, while McDonnell repeatedly countered that his opponent would raise taxes.
In answering almost every question, Deeds hit McDonnell, charging he has undergone a dramatic campaign-year reinvention as a pragmatic moderate interested in bipartisan compromise. More than once Deeds accused McDonnell of "lying," language the Democrat told reporters just after the debate might have been "too strong," before going on to say that his opponent is "telling the same untruths over and over again."
"As you've seen tonight, candidate McDonnell is a smooth talker and has undergone a pretty serious makeover this year. But he just can't escape his record. His record as a legislator was governed by a rigid social agenda," Deeds said during the debate.
McDonnell pressed the argument that has been the dominant theme of his campaign in recent weeks: a vote for the Democratic state senator would be a vote for higher taxes.
"Creigh, your only option really is to raise taxes a billion dollars, and in this recession I think that's exactly the wrong policy," McDonnell said of Deeds's plan for transportation funding. "Families can't afford it, businesses can't afford it and seniors can't afford it."
Deeds opened himself to the line of attack at the two men's last debate, Sept. 17, a daytime affair in Fairfax County where he waffled while answering reporters' questions about new taxes to pay for transportation projects just after the debate concluded. His hesitation, caught on video, has been turned by Republicans into a series of ads running in a virtually continuous loop on televisions across Virginia.
Deeds has been working to clarify his position since, authoring an op-ed in The Washington Post and last week beginning to address the issue in TV commercials. He continued that effort at Monday's debate, saying he would sign a tax increase to provide new revenue for roads if it was the result of a bipartisan compromise passed by the General Assembly. He countered that McDonnell's plan to privatize state-run liquor stores and devote some sales tax revenue for roads would cut money from schools, public safety and other core state needs.
"I've got the only approach to transportation that's worked in the last 30 years," Deeds said. "The people of Virginia are sick and tired of sitting in traffic. If you like to sit in traffic, you're satisfied with the status quo, there's another plan out here that the other man is putting forward that you need to support."
Both men seemed to show signs of nerves as the debate began, at times stumbling over their words and searching for answers. A former Army officer who chooses his words precisely, McDonnell recovered more quickly and did not appear rattled by Deeds's charges. Deeds's words flowed more slowly, as he at times stopped and started his sentences, a speaking style that has been criticized by supporters of McDonnell.
Deeds sought to directly address that criticism, allowing that McDonnell is the better speaker but promising to be the more plainspoken. "I'm not the most eloquent speaker, but, like Harry Truman, I tell the truth, and I work hard to get things done," Deeds said.
The hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP, was moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS and aired live on television stations across Virginia and nationally on C-SPAN.
Deeds and McDonnell are vying to replace Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who is barred from running for a second term, in a nationally watched race that will determine whether Democrats remain ascendant in Virginia after holding the governor's mansion for the past eight years, capturing both of the state's U.S. Senate seats in recent years and backing President Obama in November.
With three weeks until Election Day, the debate came at a critical juncture, particularly for Deeds, who has fallen behind in the polls after making a late-summer surge. The Democrat has been looking for ways to regain momentum, and a statewide audience provided a chance.
On numerous issues, Deeds said McDonnell had shifted to better appeal to moderates in an election year.
Deeds pointed out that as a candidate McDonnell says he opposes discrimination in the workforce, but as attorney general he opposed an executive order signed by Kaine that bans the practice for state employees. McDonnell said he thought that the order was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive branch.
As attorney general, McDonnell was opposed to establishing a bipartisan commission to redraw legislative districts after the 2010 census. As a candidate, McDonnell now supports it, Deeds noted.
McDonnell aimed to focus on the issues Virginians say they most care about and where polls show he holds strong leads. By double-digit margins, voters said in a Washington Post poll released last week that they think the Republican would better handle virtually every major issue facing Virginians, including transportation, taxes, education, the state budget and the economy.
The Republican promised to keep taxes low and cut regulations to allow free enterprise to recover from the economic downturn. And he continued efforts begun in two previous debates to tie Deeds to Democratic initiatives in Washington that Republicans think are a source of voter anxiety in Virginia.
"He's been a supporter or ambivalent about all these big government programs out of Washington, D.C. . . . That's not what we need to grow the economy," McDonnell said.
Deeds did not directly mention McDonnell's controversial 1989 master's thesis, in which the Republican wrote that working women were a detriment to the family. But he argued that McDonnell has supported discrimination more recently, including during his eight years of service on the board of trustees of Regent University, the Virginia Beach college founded by Pat Robertson. The school has a non-discrimination policy that pledges equal opportunities for men and women, consistent with Biblical teachings that men are the head of households.
McDonnell responded that he hired employees into the attorney general's office based only on merit and he supports equal opportunities and pay for men and women, noting that his oldest daughter served as a platoon commander in Iraq.
Deeds and McDonnell differed on whether the state should reform its campaign finance laws. Deeds said he supports federal-style limits on contributions, and McDonnell said he would support more transparency in donations but not limiting them.