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The Virginia Governor's Race: Analyzing the Debate

Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney (The Washington Post)

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Robert McCartney
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney was online Tuesday, Oct. 13, at Noon ET to discuss the Monday night Virginia governor's race debate, the Deeds and McDonnell campaigns and his recent columns.

This Story

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Complete Coverage: Race to Richmond

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washingtonpost.com:

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Robert McCartney:

Hi everybody. We're talking about last night's Virginia gubernatorial debate between Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell, but I'm happy to hear about any topic that interests you. That could include Michelle Rhee, the subject of my column Sunday.

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Northern Virginia: I thought that Deeds (in addition to talking issues) worked harder to introduce his biography to voters who are just "tuning in" -- the great uncle's summer camp "all in" philosophy, the four $20 bills going to college, the older Virginians in his family. Do you agree? We did learn about McDonnell's father's Alzheimer's, which is such a shame, but that was the only really personal or emotional thought from him.

Robert McCartney:

Yes, Deeds talked a bit more about personal stuff than McDonnell. I've heard Deeds use some of those anecdotes before in public, but he probably figured it made sense to repeat them since this was the first debate televised live in prime time and a lot of people were tuning in for the first time.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Last year, Obama won about 60 percent in Northern Virginia (defined here as all localities from Arlington down to Stafford County to the south and Fauquier/Loudoun to the west), while it was basically a dead heat in the rest of the state between Obama and McCain. It doesn't seem likely McConnell, even if he wins overall, will carry Northern Virginia, which raises the question, when was the last time Virginia elected a governor who did not carry Northern Virginia?

Robert McCartney:

There's no question Deeds need to carry Northern Virginia by a big margin to win, and latest polls don't show him ahead sufficiently to do that. I'm afraid my historical knowledge of Virginia electoral results is not detailed enough to be sure who was last governor to win without carrying Northern Virginia. Perhaps a reader could help? If I had to guess, I'd venture that it was the last Republican governor, Jim Gilmore, elected in 1997.

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Abingdon, Va.: Why is the press not picking up Deeds's argument that McDonnell has a record of OPPOSING legislation for key positions he now embraces like jobs creation and equal pay for equal work?

Robert McCartney:

The Post's editorial page wrote a strong editorial a while ago pointing out that McDonnell in the past opposed efforts to expand the governor's opportunity fund, which helps the state recruit companies to invest in Virginia. Now McDonnell is for expanding that fund, saying the recession led him to change his position.

I pointed out in my column last Thursday that McDonnell only started pushing in a big way for funding for transportation for Northern Virginia in 2007, when he was already preparing to run for governor and knew he'd need support in No. Va. in the race.

Deeds mentioned several times in the debate last night that McDonnell has had what Deeds called "election year conversions" on some issues.

However, I think McDonnell would argue pretty strongly against the idea that he was opposed in the past to jobs creation. He would say, I suspect, that he has consistently opposed higher taxes, and that higher taxes sap jobs growth. That's an ideological dividing line between the candidates.

By the way: Most of the questions I'm getting so far seem to be coming from Deeds supporters. I have yet to see a question from somebody who appears sympathetic to McDonnell.

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washingtonpost.com: Did Rhee Overplay Her Hand or Seek A Showdown? (Post, Oct. 11)

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Richmond, Va.: So who do you think "won"?

Robert McCartney:

Here's a simple, straightforward question. I thought neither candidate scored a knockout.

I thought McDonnell succeeded in driving home the point that Deeds is more likely to raise taxes, so that was a plus from his point of view.

However, I also thought Deeds was more focused and clear in his answers that in the past. Also, although he accused McDonnell of lying, he didn't strike a negative tone overall. I think it was a plus that Deeds didn't continue to go after McDonnell on the 1989 master's thesis. I think voters are tired of that right now.

Since expectations were low for Deeds, I think the debate helped him more than it helped McDonnell. So in that sense, I'd give it to Deeds -- really narrowly -- on points.

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Springfield, Va.: Just by not coming into the press gaggle after the debate and immediately contradicting himself Deeds did better, but did he do enough to change the race?

Robert McCartney:

The writer refers to Deeds's talk with reporters in the media "gaggle" immediately after the previous debate, in Fairfax. There, Deeds appeared vague and contradictory about taxes and transportation funding -- and the GOP has been using video clips of his defensive, confusing answers there in its campaign advertisements.

Did Deeds do enough in the debate to change the race? I doubt it. He was 9 points behind, according to The Post's latest poll, and I didn't see enough new in the debate to swing it back to Deeds enough to overcome that.

Two big things that could help Deeds now: 1) Getting The Post's editorial page endorsement, which he really needs, especially in No. Va.; and 2) Getting Obama to come campaign for him in a big way, which would help especially with African American and young voters.

Let me be clear: I have NOTHING TO DO with The Post's editorial page endorsement, and NO INSIDE INFORMATION on it. But it's common knowledge that Deeds really needs it -- and the earlier the better for him, and the more ringing the better for him.

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McDonnell supporter?: By the way: Most of the questions I'm getting so far seem to be coming from Deeds's supporters. I have yet to see a question from somebody who appears sympathetic to McDonnell.

Given the Post's and your support for Deeds, why would a McDonnell supporter bother to participate in this chat?

Robert McCartney:

Now I've heard from some McDonnell supporters! Thanks, folks.

I think we've been tough but fair with both candidates. I wrote a tough column about Deeds after the Fairfax debate. In the press gaggle after that debate, I asked Deeds some of the questions featured in the GOP TV ads.

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Herndon, Virginia: The video of Deeds talking back to a reporter and calling her "little lady" is tough to watch. He can point to a 20 year old thesis, but his current attitude toward professional women who dare to question him was apparent. Has he apologized to the reporter? Has he made any statement trying to explain his conduct?

Robert McCartney:

Deeds did apologize to the reporter, and she said she wasn't insulted by the question.

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Burke, Va.: Robert,

Do you know whether the Washington Post is going to endorse either candidate before the election?

Robert McCartney:

I do NOT know whether The Post is going to endorse either candidate before the election, but I would be very surprised -- based on past practice -- if it refrained from doing so. The Post takes seriously its role as an endorser. The last time I remember The Post refraining from endorsing anybody, it was in the 1988 presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The decision not to endorse Dukakis was seen as a blow to him.

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Arlington, Va.: I don't live in D.C. but my periodontist who is gung-ho for Michelle Rhee and her goal of improving D.C. schools. Still, I was taken aback by the recent column by a new D.C. teacher who got her termination notice shortly after she began. So, does Rhee know what is is doing and can that improve the D.C. schools?

Robert McCartney:

I think almost everybody wants to improve the D.C. schools and wishes Rhee well, but I and others have a lot of reservations about some of the ways she's going about it.

I don't know all the background of the column to which you refer. But there were a number of new D.C. teachers who unexpectedly got laid off earlier this month, and many of them surely had gone to a lot of trouble to move here, find apartments, etc., only to be suddenly let go.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Actually, both George Allen (1993) and Jim Gilmore (1997) won slight majorities in Northern Virginia while winning a landslide overall in the rest of the state. I just don't have readity available data before the 1980s (before my time!) Had just a few thousand votes switched in 1989, Marshall Coleman would have been elected governor withotu winning NoVA...

Robert McCartney:

Thanks for the history lesson!

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Sheila Johnson's "Macaca moment": Has McDonnell distanced himself in any way yet from Sheila Johnson's "supportive" comment that one reason to favor him essentially boils down to his being, shall we say, a more fluid public speaker? Considering that America's arguably greatest living actor, James Earl Jones, is a natural stutterer (although he speaks lines written by others smoothly), I found her comment doubly offensive -- both prejudiced against those with disabilities and racist.

Robert McCartney:

I believe McDonnell has said that Sheila Johnson has already apologized for making fun of Deeds's speaking style, and he's not going to say anything beyond that.

He has stopped short of criticizing her for it.

By the way: The controversy over the Sheila Johnson comment has been misleading in the sense that it seems to have created an impression that Deeds stutters. He doesn't stutter, or at least I haven't heard him do it. He gets flustered sometimes and can't respond directly to a question, or one answer doesn't follow on another. But that's different from stuttering, which is a medical condition.

As I said, I thought he was more articulate last night than in the past, so he picked a good time (first primetime live televised debate).

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re: Burke: When was the last time The Post endorsed a Republican for governor of Virginia When was the last time The Post endorsed a Republican for president? A Post endorsement of Deeds is almost preordained. Only by not endorsing Deeds could The Post hurt him; McDonnell expects not to be endorsed by The Post, and most of his supporters don't care about who The Post endorses.

Robert McCartney:

I don't know if The Post's editorial page has ever endorsed a Republican for governor of Virginia. However, it did endorse Republican Bob Ehrlich for governor of Maryland when he ran for reelection and was defeated by Democrat Martin O'Malley. So there's some precedent there.

I'm sure it's true that McDonnell expects not to be endorsed by The Post. The editorial page has strongly criticized his transportation plan, for instance, and called him a 'culture warrior' after the master's thesis was made public.

However, a Post endorsement could certainly help Deeds with moderate and independent voters, especially in Northern Virginia. It could also encourage Democratic turnout.

The Post endorsement was unquestionably crucial in getting Deeds the nomination in the primary.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't live in Virginia, but if I did, I would vote for McDonnell. I've been a working woman for 25 years now, but I don't worry about some old thesis. It's not as if McDonnell is going to ban women from working outside the home -- let's get real here. And, neither one of them has a decent transportation plan, but I have NO idea what Deeds' position on taxes is. He changes positions with every question. Two weak candidates, but I'd vote for McDonnell in part to express my disgust at the White House's unlimited spending.

Robert McCartney:

Actually, I think Deeds's position on taxes now is pretty clear. (It took awhile.)

Deeds rules out raising taxes for the general fund -- to pay for schools, public safety, etc.

He leaves open the possibility of a tax increase to pay for transportation -- as long as it's part of a bipartisan package approved by the General Assembly.

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Arlington, Va.: FYI

I believe that McDonnell and Sheila Johnson are appearing together in Vienna, Va., in the near future.

Robert McCartney:

I believe McDonnell and Sheila Johnson are appearing together in Vienna today.

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McLean, Va.: Just to correct an earlier comment, Deeds called the reporter "young lady" not "little lady." And as a young woman I do not find young lady the slightest bit insulting.

Robert McCartney:

Thanks for the clarification. It was "young" lady, and he said it with a smile.

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Falls Church, Va.: Would the Post editorial board really endorse a candidate who ran a negative campaign based on social wedge issues? In the past, they've disdained such practices.

Robert McCartney:

That's a good point. The editorial page usually finds negative ads distasteful. Both sides have run negative ads, though.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Can't help you on your quest for McDonnell supporters, but it seems to me that if the polls are to be believed, we are punishing Deeds for simply being honest. Are we in Virginia serious about solving the traffic and road problems (a big issue here in C'ville as well as in NoVa and Virginia Beach)? Well, guess what. We're going to have to pay for it.

McDonnell and his supporters say they are going to solve all of this, but apparently they're going use magic wands. I hope that my fellow Virginians are smarter than that and realize that nothing comes free. Deeds has said that he won't rule out a tax increase of some sort to pay for the roads and McDonnell has hammered him for it (PRO TAX LIBERAL SPENDING DEMOCRAT! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!), but where is McDonnell going to get the money to solve this expensive problem?

Robert McCartney:

I agree with the basic idea here. Deeds is indeed suffering with voters for being honest and realistic about what's needed to fix transportation. He's open to raise taxes for the roads -- and in my view, that's the right approach.

There's not nearly enough money available for road maintenance, road repair and mass transit. The state shouldn't rely only on tax increases to get that money, but surely it's going to have to rely to some extent on tax increases to get the dough.

McDonnell's proposals on transportation are admirably detailed but unrealistic when examined closely -- unless we're willing to shift a lot of money away from the General Fund, thus threatening education funding, public safety and other vital services other than transportation.

For instance, McDonnell proposes to sell the state liquor stores and get roughly $500 million for transportation. Some people don't think it'd raise anywhere near that much. Also, the state would then lose the revenue that those stores provided -- which I've seen estimated at $100 million a year.

McDonnell thinks we can get enough money for transportation in the long run because an expanding economy will increase tax revenue. I think that's an excessively rosy scenario.

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Alexandria, Va.: Robert, do you think it makes sense politically for Obama to campaign for Deeds considering he might lose with quite a margin? Personally I think Obama has the ability to rally support for Deeds. Whether that's enough is another question altogether but there's really no excuse not to campaign for Deeds. It's still up for grabs no?

Robert McCartney:

This writer, and another, are asking if the race is still up for grabs, or if it's essentially over.

The answer to that question determines whether it makes sense for Obama to campaign actively for Deeds.

If Obama comes and makes a big splash, and Deeds loses anyway, then it weakens Obama politically.

I can't say with any confidence whether the race is already "over." The 9-point lead in The Post's poll was last week, or almost 4 weeks before the election. Now we're 3 weeks away.

That's a long time in politics, and I think some thing can happen (like Obama getting involved) that can help Deeds. To win, though, I think Deeds needs to find a way to make a stronger, more positive pitch to the electorate about what he's going to do for Virginia. I'm not sure how he goes about doing that, but I think that's what it would take.

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Tysons, Va.: As a Virginia Democrat I am SO disappointed with how Deeds has run his campaign. I have been waiting for months to hear him articulate his positions on key issues that matter to me: transportation, education, addressing the state's fiscal gap, etc. But all we've heard for MONTHS are negative ads about McDonnell's thesis. Seriously, I get it -- he wrote some inflammatory stuff years ago. Move on already. As a well-educated woman I'm pretty insulted that the Deeds campaign thinks that's all I care about. Tell us about how he plans to run the state.

Interestingly, I've also yet to see a TV ad where Deeds is addressing the viewer directly -- it's always a voiceover narrator. However McDonnell has been speaking directly to the camera in all his ads.

I think Deeds is losing this one, as much as it pains me to say that.

Robert McCartney:

It's time to go, but I'm going to include two more perspectives from readers on Deeds. Here's #1, which is critical.

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Fairfax County, Va.: To be honest, I like the way Deeds talks (is this politically incorrect to admit?). There's a pleasant, almost boyish hesitancy, and then when he gets going, he is so enthusiastic that the words tumble one over the other until he settles in. He usually seems to be laughing at himself while this is happening, which certainly beats feeling self-conscious.

It is fun for me to watch the video of his victory night speech where the crowd in Charlottesville enjoys it too. It makes me smile. Maybe it's one of those traits (like the notorious autonomous Tim Kaine eyebrow) that is a problem if you are behind in the polls, but endearing and individual if you are ahead.

Robert McCartney:

And here's #2, which is positive. Apologies to those whose questions I didn't get a chance to answer, and thanks for reading!

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