- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell enjoyed a high-profile moment in the public spotlight Saturday when he delivered the Republicans’ weekly radio address, stepping onto a national stage that his Democratic opponent has been slow to embrace.

Mr. McDonnell hasn’t been shy about addressing national issues. He’s openly discussed how the national Republican Party should reinvent itself, and he’s tried to engage his Democratic opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, on issues such as cap-and-trade global-warming legislation and card-check union organizing.

His 600-word address Saturday morning touched on government accountability, education and job creation. He said he supports reforming health care in a manner that provides free-market incentives and makes insurance affordable and accessible, “not through nationalizing the system with a costly government-run plan.”

“Together, we will use innovation and free markets to bring new jobs and more opportunities to Virginians and America,” Mr. McDonnell said.

Being chosen to deliver the Republicans’ radio address, a counterpoint to President Obama’s, marks an elevation in stature for the former state attorney general.

But a contrast with Mr. Obama also could benefit Mr. McDonnell in Virginia, where the president’s favorability rating has been slipping and gubernatorial contests have historically been a backlash against new administrations.

In each Virginia gubernatorial election since 1973, the winner has represented the party opposing the president chosen in the prior year’s federal election.

But during his campaign, Mr. McDonnell has not just attempted to capitalize on his differences with the Obama administration. He told The Washington Times in June that he wants to help reinvent the Republican Party on a national level.

“I’m trying during this campaign to help to rebrand our party as the party of positive, happy, friendly, conservative leadership that’s pro-growth, pro-free enterprise, pro-economic development. And that’s really what we stand for,” Mr. McDonnell said.

The candidate criticized both state Republican leaders, who he said have allowed themselves to be characterized by Democrats as obstructionists, and national party leaders, who he said have done a poor job in recent years articulating the party’s core values.

“The Republican brand at the federal level has been tarnished six out of the last eight years, or the eight years where the Bush administration had a Republican majority and yet the national debt about doubled. We did not make progress on Social Security and immigration. We had congressmen doing some bad things that landed them in prison. That is not a great brand to create for the Republican Party,” Mr. McDonnell said.

He suggested the Republican Party focus on education as a signature issue, and in his address Saturday he talked about the need to expand access to education and complimented the president’s call for education reform.

In their first gubernatorial debate last month, Mr. McDonnell recounted a visit to the largest employer in Mr. Deeds’ state Senate district. The employer doesn’t support the cap-and-trade approach that would curb greenhouse gases by capping emissions and issuing permits for allowable carbon dioxide.

Mr. McDonnell agreed, calling cap-and-trade a “job killer.”

“If you won’t take a stand for 1,500 jobs in your district, I don’t think the people of Virginia can be confident you can protect jobs statewide,” Mr. McDonnell said to Mr. Deeds during the debate.

He also pushed Mr. Deeds to sign a letter to be sent to Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, urging them to vote against card-check legislation that governs how unions should be allowed to organize. His opponent demurred, asking if Mr. McDonnell was running for Congress or for governor.

The latest poll numbers show Mr. McDonnell leading Mr. Deeds 51 percent to 37 percent, according to a survey released last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Polling.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have fallen in the state. The president’s approval rating is 42 percent - down from 48 percent last month, according to the polling firm.

Bob Holsworth, a former public policy professor who runs the political Web site VirginiaTomorrow.com, said the focus on broader issues has thus far been a boon to the McDonnell campaign.

“It has been working well to this point because Deeds has yet to figure out how to respond to the attacks - cap-and-trade and card check. McDonnell has recognized Democrats have another problem in that [Gov. Tim] Kaine is obligated by his position to defend every part of the national policy agenda. McDonnell has exploited that by trying to make Deeds take a position.” Mr. Kaine also serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Deeds supporters say there are pitfalls to touting a national agenda.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said Mr. Deeds doesn’t discuss national policies because they aren’t germane to the race.

“His job is to engage the voters of Virginia - where is Virginia headed, as opposed to where the federal government is headed.”

J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Mr. McDonnell, defended his boss’s national viewpoint.

“First thing to note, Bob McDonnell is the only candidate in this race really rolling out policy proposals on state issues,” he said. “That field has been left to him. And he will certainly comment on national issues if they affect Virginia jobs. If it is a federal issue, a state issue, or a local issue, if it affects Virginia jobs, it is a Virginia issue and candidates should talk about it.”

Pointing to Mr. Deeds’ comprehensive economic policy plan, his spokesman, Jared Leopold, dismissed the notion that Mr. McDonnell is alone in offering proposals for Virginia.

Mr. Leopold also said Mr. McDonnell should have taken the opportunity to explain his transportation plan, which Democrats say will strip $5.4 billion from public schools over the next 10 years and allocate it to transportation.

“It’s no wonder Bob would rather talk about Washington than his plans to take Virginia backwards,” he said.

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