SHIRLINGTON, Va. -- Marge Epstein squeezed between me and Democrat Creigh Deeds' press secretary one day this week and demanded that each of us tell her Deeds' message in one short sentence. Naturally, the press secretary -- Jared Leopold -- made me go first.
"I'm Mark Warner and he's not?" I said tentatively, Warner being the state's super-popular senator and "he" being the confident, camera-ready Republican Bob McDonnell
, Deeds' conservative rival in the closely watched Virginia governor's race.
Not bad, Leopold said. Not good enough, Epstein said later. A retired management consultant, she's a Deeds campaign volunteer -- and she's nervous. "I'm very impressed with the man. He'd do a fabulous job," she told me, and would work with both parties as well as Warner did when he was governor. But she said that's not coming across: "We need to do a better job about getting people to know him."
After punishing elections in 2006 and 2008, the national Republican Party's best hope for a comeback rests with McDonnell, a former state legislator who stepped down as attorney general to make the race. In their primary last June, Democrats nominated Deeds over a field that included former national party chairman Terry McAuliffe, the flamboyant veteran of countless state and national campaigns. With Deeds trailing in all published polls
, they're hoping they didn't place the wrong bet.
The outcome of this race, one of only two for governor this year, will inevitably be plumbed for signs of how President Obama and his party are doing down the road in Washington. But that's only part of the saga unfolding here, with one candidate tripped up by a 20-year-old master's thesis
and the other by his own tongue
On one level, it's a contest of styles. Deeds, from rural southwest Virginia
, is earnest and unassuming, his speech sometimes halting and his head habitually tilted forward in listening mode. He's trying to turn his stumbles and lack of polish into a selling point -- he may not be smooth, but darn it, he's genuine. McDonnell, from liberal Northern Virginia, says his opponent either has no vision for the state, or can't express it. He himself is a fluent speaker who sometimes displays preternatural candidate skills.
For instance, when a WJLA-TV interviewer asked McDonnell this week to name the last movie he'd seen, the candidate said he happened to have watched one the night before. And what was it? "The Express
," about Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman trophy. And how perfect was that? Answering the same question in a separate interview, Deeds said he couldn't remember but it was probably "Field of Dreams
," because "I watch that several times a year." That was good -- a sop to baseball fans -- but only half as good as McDonnell's double (football fans and black voters).
McDonnell also seems to be besting Deeds in the state's desperate search for a way out of job-killing gridlock on the roads. He's proposed a grab bag of ways to fund transportation projects while Deeds says he'd convene a bipartisan group and sign whatever they come up with, even if it involves new taxes. "Virginia, Meet Your Mr. Mondale
," a conservative blogger wrote at CQ Politics
. Never mind that The Washington Post
editorial board calls the McDonnell plan "phony-baloney
" and legislators already have rejected most of it in past attempts to solve the problem. Deeds defends his approach as straightforward and honest, but McDonnell is running an ad saying Deeds would raise taxes $1 billion.
That brings us to another level of the race, the ideological contest. Deeds has been trying to paint McDonnell as a throwback to bad old times of huge deficits and discrimination against women. While McDonnell rejects that characterization and has plenty of forward-looking ideas, he has praised former George W. Bush's economic policies and taken hard lines on some social issues -- he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, for example. If he wins, it'll be a sign that Virginia is no Democratic bastion despite a seven-year winning streak that has netted the party two governors, two senators and -- last year -- a Democratic presidential candidate carrying the state for the first time since 1964.
McDonnell was in his element at a forum the other day sponsored by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. His campaign signs lined the road to the Lansdowne conference center and his supporters filled most of the seats at the breakfast tables. He joked comfortably with the group -- "I know how to manage in times of crisis because I have twin boys who just got their driver's licenses" -- and reeled off his leadership experience as attorney general (running "the state's law firm"), in business (as a manager at a Fortune 500 company) and in the military (as an army officer). He is, he said, a "decisive decision-maker" who will "get it done."
The focus was right where he wanted it -- on jobs and transportation, not the infamous master's thesis in which McDonnell said working women were detrimental to the family and laid out a government action plan designed to discourage working women, homosexuality, divorce and abortion. At the time, he was 34 and a student at Regent University, an evangelical Christian school founded by Pat Robertson.
McDonnell dismisses the thesis as an academic exercise and says he has changed -- just look, he says, at his wife (she has worked inside and outside the home), his daughters (the two eldest have master's degrees; one commanded a platoon in Baghdad), his aides and staff (some of his mainstays are working moms). His female relatives and employees are praising him in ads, and his sisters-in-law vouched for him personally to me at the chamber of commerce breakfast. "You raise five children and you have to open up your thinking on some things," said one of them, Diane Bowers, a social worker for Loudoun County.
Deeds, an 18-year legislator who narrowly lost the attorney general race to McDonnell four years ago, has made the 1989 document a centerpiece of his ads and stump speech. "The thesis is very relevant because it puts in context Bob's record," Deeds told me. "It explains why in 18 years of public service, he never wrote a bill to create a job or expand an educational opportunity," why McDonnell voted against equal pay for women and stronger regulation of child care, and introduced 35 bills to restrict abortion.
The thesis was a break for Deeds, but there haven't been many. His first obstacle is history. The last time Virginia voters elected a governor from the same party as the president was 1973.
Nor are Democratic Party leaders making it easy on Deeds. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), recently received a letter from a U.S. House committee chairman telling him Virginia ranked 51 out of 51 in spending transportation stimulus money. Obama's spending to ease the recession, as well as his ambitious goals on health and energy, are giving McDonnell an endless and sometimes misleading supply of fodder. For instance, he repeatedly says Deeds supports a cap-and-trade plan pushed by Obama, but Deeds has not said that
"The president's doing the best that he can," Deeds said when I asked him about the impact of national politics on his race. "There have been a lot of uncertainties coming out Washington that have not been helpful, but that's something I can't control."
It's been a tough tightrope to walk. Comments like that one, as well as Deeds' refusal in a debate to call himself an Obama Democrat and the sense among some Democrats that Deeds has been too fixated on the thesis, led to talk of mutual distancing between the Deeds and Obama camps. But this week there's been a rush of activity that undermines that theory: a new $1 million DNC donation to Deeds, stepped-up DNC outreach activity for Deeds and a Deeds fundraiser Thursday featuring Vice President Joe Biden. As for Obama himself, Rep. Jim Moran -- greeting voters with Deeds here in Shirlington this week -- told me he is confident Obama will be back in the state close to Election Day, and will help energize voters in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Much of the business community is out in force for McDonnell. The audience at the chamber of commerce breakfast included Martin Hamberger, board chairman of Fortessa Inc. (McDonnell is "the free-enterprise candidate") and David D'Onofrio, communications director of the county GOP (McDonnell exhibits passion and "real leadership").
Still, Deeds gamely worked the room and delivered his pitch: He's gotten things done in the past, including a pioneering land-preservation tax credit and a job-creation fund his rival opposed but now wants to double, and he'll get things done in the future. "I know the [legislative] process like the back of my hand, and I'm a nice guy. I get along with people," he said, and concluded: "I ask humbly for your help."
Deeds did not do much stammering and he did not stutter at all -- defying the caricature in a popular YouTube video that captures McDonnell supporter Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, doing a cruel imitation
of his hesitant speaking style. On the other hand, Deeds was referring to notes and he committed at least one unforced error -- telling the business group that "I haven't really thought much about the regulatory environment."
Priscilla Godfrey, a member of the Loudoun County School Board, didn't think much of his performance. "But I'm trying to look past that," she said, "because I believe in public education. . . . I much prefer Creigh Deeds' platform."
Democrats need to toughen up and remember that presentation isn't everything. It's not like Bush was the soul of eloquence or vision, but he managed to land the world's top job. If that's cold comfort, there are always the immortal words
of Don Rumsfeld: "You go to war with the army you have."