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Posted at 1:21 PM ET, 09/18/2009

In Virginia's Election, a Study in Contrasts

By Stephen Stromberg

By Lee Hockstader

The candidates running for governor of Virginia make a nice study in contrasts, on view for all to see at yesterday’s debate before the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the state’s premier business group.

There was Creigh Deeds, the folksy, likable, from-the-heart Democrat wrestling with his artless delivery, the distractions in Washington of health care and energy, and a state with a decades-long history of voting, in gubernatorial elections, against the party occupying the White House.

And there was Bob McDonnell, the coolly adroit, silver-tongued Republican who struggled to finesse the inconvenient facts of his socially conservative legislative record and an ideologically archaic dissertation he wrote in his mid-30s.

The race is a rematch of their closely fought face-off for attorney general four years ago, which McDonnell won by 323 votes out of more than 1.9 million ballots. Had Deeds’s opp-research team dug up McDonnell’s dissertation at the time, he would be running today as the incumbent attorney general rather than as an obscure state senator from Bath County, Va.

McDonnell comes across as a candidate organized to a fare-thee-well and polished to a high gleam, with his clean-cut volunteers handing out 20-page, single-spaced position papers on transportation at the door and planting campaign posters outside that were about five times the size of Deeds’s.

He’d even planned his for-the-camera moment in the debate, holding up a blank piece of paper and calling it Deeds’s transportation plan.

Deeds -- at once a little too soft-spoken and a little too impassioned -- struck back by harping on McDonnell’s thesis, which on fourth or fifth reference elicited groans. This from a centrist audience of Northern Virginia business types who’ve been generally sympathetic to the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Tim Kaine, and his predecessor, Mark Warner, who’s now a U.S. senator.

No wonder that after the debate, Democrats had the slightly pained looks of people who’d hoped for the best but are braced for the worst, while Republicans, shut out of the governor’s office in Richmond since 2002, were exultant.

“All Deeds has is the thesis,” said a grinning Tom Davis, a former moderate Republican congressman from Northern Virginia who quit politics -- largely because the state GOP had been taken over by conservatives much like McDonnell. (But why harp on that?) “That’s all he’s got.”

In fact that wasn’t quite all Deeds had. He also has the unshakable fact that McDonnell, toeing the line of Republican orthodoxy, tried to block Warner’s signature achievement as governor -- a tax package in 2004 without which the state’s finances would today be even more anemic than they already are. Warner is by far the most popular politician in Virginia, which makes you think Deeds could somehow work that 2004 vote to his to his advantage.

But Deeds, who seems to struggle with packaging, delivery and framing of issues, doesn’t quite seem to have figured out how to capitalize on the advantages he has -- not just McDonnell’s views of 20 years ago, but a state whose management under eight years of Democratic stewardship has been as solid as any in the country.

Rather, he has let McDonnell put him on the defensive on cap-and-trade, card-check and other inside-the-Beltway issues over which a Virginia governor, despite running the nation’s 12th most populous state, has as much sway as he does in determining the tides.

By Stephen Stromberg  | September 18, 2009; 1:21 PM ET
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