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McDonnell, Deeds Face Off in Televised Debate

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, left, and Republican challenger Robert F. McDonnell talk before the start of a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP in Richmond.
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, left, and Republican challenger Robert F. McDonnell talk before the start of a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP in Richmond. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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.

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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.

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