In the first prime-time televised debate of the Virginia gubernatorial race Republican Bob McDonnell was firm and eloquent in his criticism of Democrat Creigh Deeds, who, while failing to match the strength of his opponent’s delivery, came out swinging in sharp but mis-aimed attacks against McDonnell’s “radical” stance on social issues.
The debate isn’t likely to be a major turning point in the race. Deeds needed a clean knockout against McDonnell — now leading most polls by about 8 points — but didn’t’ get one.
While the candidates behaved well enough to garner a “that was very civil” compliment from moderator Judy Woodruff, few would say that either candidate pulled punches in their third and second to last debate before election day on November 3.
"You know, Bob continues to talk about cap and trade, and he’s spending millions of dollars to lie to the voters of Virginia about it," said Deeds in a particularly tense moment. "He wants this campaign to be decided on issues he’ll lie about. I can’t control him."
McDonnell, in response, quoted editorial boards “across the state” in terming Deeds’ attacks “dishonest.” He added, “I’m going to let the people and the editorial boards decide whose being honest.” After the debate McDonnell told reporters that he found Deeds’ comments "to be really below the dignity of a gubernatorial campaign."
In a race perceived as an important bellwether for the midterm elections next year, national political issues took the forefront and both opponents attempted, with differing levels of success, to tie each other to the least popular facets of their respective party’s national strategy and legacy.
"When Bill [Clinton] took office we were in recession and facing massive job losses,” said Deeds. “And while Bill Clinton was president, we had the largest period of peacetime economic growth in our nation’s history. George Bush took office, the economy went under again. George Bush led to a long series of irresponsible policies that undermined economic growth."
McDonnell hit Deeds repeatedly on taxes, an issue which has proved a vulnerable one for Deeds, and the subject of an effective line of recent attack ads. "Creigh, your only option really is to raise taxes a billion dollars, and in this recession I think that’s exactly the wrong policy. Families can’t afford it, businesses can’t afford it and seniors can’t afford it."
McDonnell entered the debate with an 8 point lead over the Democrat according to most polls, with a recent Washington Post poll putting McDonnell ahead by double digits in virtually every issue area facing Virginians, including transportation, taxes, education, the state budget, and the economy.
McDonnell, deftly dodging an early question formulated to make him defend Republican practices, instead restated his commitment to Republican values as he saw them, such as “entrepreneurship, innovation, small business…” and promised “new incentives to bring business to Virginia.” The former attorney general defended other Republican ideas such as low taxes and right-to-work laws by saying, “I think those are the ideas that have helped. What this election really is about here in Virginia is job creation and economic development."
Deeds has faced difficulty in recent weeks countering the perception, even among elders in his own party, that he has been too negative in his attacks against McDonnell, and should instead attempt to cultivate a positive image of strong leadership for himself.
Though contentious national issues like health care came up repeatedly in the debate, some time was spent on the biggest state-wide issue this cycle, that of overcrowded highways and reform within the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
"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."
Arguing that Deeds’ plan consists of little more than promising to get a bipartisan panel together to look at the problem, McDonnell laid out in some detail his plan to address “one of the most pressing issues facing the state,” insisting that any plan which would raise taxes is “the wrong philosophy.”
McDonnell referred repeatedly to his record as Virginia’s attorney general, an office he won by a mere 360 votes in another race against Deeds in 2006. On issues as diverse as quality of life for seniors, growth opportunities for small farmers and educational opportunities for Virginia’s youth, McDonnell pointed to his leadership as attorney general, saying that “99% of the bills I introduced in the Virginia Legislature as attorney general passed, and my opponent voted for 98% of them.”
Deeds, invoking McDonnell’s 20-year old graduate thesis in which the Republican described working women as “detrimental to the family,” criticized McDonnell for his association with Regent University, an institution with sexist policies according to Deeds. "I’ve worked to end discrimination in the workplace throughout my career. Bob McDonnell as recently as 2005 was a member of the board of regents of Regent University, which had a blatant policy that gave men a preference in hiring." ( The Washington Post tried to make a “macaca” campaign against McDonnell with the thesis, reminiscent of the 100+ stories it ran against then-senatorial candidate George Allen. The Post’s effort seems to have failed)
Deed’s charges that McDonnell was in favor of discrimination fell flat against McDonnell’s by now well-rehearsed defense against such claims as well as his record of hiring competent women as attorney general. "I’ve been married to a working woman for 33 years,” said McDonnell. “I’ve raised three daughters … and encouraged them to be the best that they can be. My oldest daughter was a platoon leader in Iraq when Creigh and I were running against each other four years ago, and that is the ultimate working woman."
Deeds finds himself in the difficult position of needing to attract the independents that swung to Obama last year but are increasingly concerned by what they see as Obama’s high-risk economic measures and wavering support. Deeds clearly fought to frame himself as friendly to Virginia’s independents in the debate while casting his opponent as a member of the religious fringe. The strategy has thus far been ineffective, as McDonnell leads Deeds by 21 points with independents.
The degree to which independents swing toward Republicans in this contest will show whether — as Republicans hope — it will be a referendum on the Obama administration which they can win.
After the debate Deeds told reporters that his opponent was a “one-trick pony” who would continue to tell “the same untruths over and over again.” In this climate, McDonnell’s “trick” of matching a cool demeanor with a trusted record of leadership and specific plan for market-driven growth may be prove to be just enough to take back Virginia and help send Democrats running scared before next year’s midterms.
The hour-long debate, which was held in Richmond, was sponsored by the Virginia chapters of the League of Women Voters and AARP. The fourth and final debate will be held October 20 at Roanoke College.