If he was not trudging with his hunting rifle through patches of teaberry or dreaming of becoming a baseball player, a young R. Creigh Deeds might have been hanging out at the polls on Election Day with his grandfather, the head of the local Democratic Party in his part of rural west-central Virginia.
Following local races got him hooked on public service, Deeds said. By high school, the future state legislator abandoned visions of a professional sports career -- he says he was never that athletic, anyway -- and decided to shoot for law school.
"The way I could make the most of a difference was to become a lawyer," said Deeds, 47, a Democratic state senator from Bath County, where he grew up and still lives with his wife, four children and several farm animals, including a donkey named Harry S. Truman.
The law degree and a desire to help others led Deeds to practice as a country lawyer, do a stint as a local prosecutor and serve 14 years in the General Assembly. Now, he's running for Virginia attorney general Nov. 8 against Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach).
Even as Deeds promotes a tough-on-crime platform, his rustic roots are at the center of his campaign. In a rich drawl, he talks about his passion for "huntin' and fishin' " and recounts how New Deal rural electrification changed his grandparents' lives. It is a populist, earthy style that has persuaded many voters in the conservative Virginia foothills to vote for a Democrat -- and that he and his supporters believe will also persuade voters statewide.
"He is about as country as it gets," said former delegate A. Victor Thomas, a Democrat from Roanoke. "He just puts everything up front. There ain't no hidden agenda," Thomas said.
In Richmond, Deeds has built a reputation as a hardworking, thoughtful and eternally affable lawmaker. He is known as a moderate Democrat who favors abortion rights and environmental protection but who voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and supports gun rights and capital punishment.
Some critics, such as Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), say Deeds walks a too-safe line. Deeds is unapologetic, saying he has always strived for consensus. "I'm not a big self-promoter," he said.
Deeds said he would shape the attorney general's office into a politics-free zone that would be the "best public legal office in the country." He said he, like many recent attorneys general, would also use the post to champion public safety measures.
He wants to crack down on sex offenders who have been released from prison by requiring them to wear a Global Positioning System tracking device. He is calling for tougher penalties for methamphetamine producers and big-time identity thieves. He says he will push for more federal money to secure ports in Hampton Roads and pressure federal authorities to deport gang members who are illegal immigrants.
"I want to keep Virginia safe and secure," Deeds said after a fundraiser recently in Tysons Corner.
His cousin Wes Shrader said Deeds was outdoorsy as a youth but also ambitious. The host of a locally televised high school quiz bowl once asked players, including Deeds, what they wanted to be when they were older, Shrader recalled. "Creigh's response was, 'President of the United States,' " Shrader said.
Deeds said his no-frills childhood instilled in him a desire to help others. The federal electrification program was an example of how government can do that, he said.
"He comes from real people with real problems," said Deeds's friend John Fishwick, a Roanoke lawyer. "A lot of people move away. He has stayed to help the people where he grew up."
After completing law school in North Carolina, Deeds said he high-tailed it back to Southwest Virginia to practice, handling a sundry caseload of criminal trials, spats between neighbor and divorces.
After four years as a prosecutor, Deeds spent 10 years in the House and four in the Senate, where he focused on education, economic development and environmental conservation. One of Deeds's most high-profile proposals was a 2001 constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to hunt and fish. Critics assailed the measure as needless at best and a threat to local gun control at worst, but voters approved it overwhelmingly.
That measure, along with Deeds's vote against the state's one-handgun-a-month law, recently secured him the National Rifle Association's coveted endorsement -- a triumph for a Democrat. (It might cost him another prized endorsement: Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder (D), a former governor who championed the gun law, has held out on backing an attorney general candidate. His spokesman, Bill Farrar, said Wilder has "expressed serious concern" about Deeds's position on the law.)
In debates and appearances, McDonnell has portrayed Deeds as soft on crime, highlighting Deeds's support for a death penalty moratorium in 2001. Peter Jackson, Deeds's spokesman, said the candidate voted for the moratorium while the state's capital punishment law was reviewed. Once the study found that the law was fair, Deeds was back on board, Jackson said.
Others say Deeds does not have the criminal justice expertise of McDonnell, a former prosecutor whose name has been attached to scores of major civil and criminal law bills.
"Bob is probably as qualified, if not more qualified, than anybody that I've known that's run for attorney general," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia), chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. "I think that he's clearly head and shoulders above Creigh Deeds."
Deeds disagrees. He said crime has been one of his priorities since he learned, as a prosecutor, about "the effect crime has on people's lives." In one case that he says haunted him for years, a man pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his children. A decade later, Deeds received a letter from the man's daughter explaining that she had forgiven her father and asking Deeds to write a letter in support of his release from prison. Deeds said his response was a swift no.
"I've got a bigger responsibility," Deeds said he told the woman. "The responsibility for children is overwhelming."
He said that case inspired him to sponsor Virginia's versions of Amber Alert, an alert system used to help find missing children, and Megan's Law, which tracks released sex offenders. As further evidence of his dedication to crime fighting, Deeds underscores that he, unlike McDonnell, voted in favor of a 2004 tax increase that boosted salaries for sheriff's deputies and funded other public safety measures.
Supporters say Deeds's legal foundation is rock-solid. And they emphasize that Deeds's concern for constituents is as earnest as it was when he began commuting from the farm in Millboro to Richmond 14 years ago.
"He's a person who does genuinely care about people, about the commonwealth, and about victims of crime," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). "It's not just some sort of theoretical thing for him. He has a real feel for how people are affected by public policy."