- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

Laying off staffers, trailing by double digits in the polls and barely able to keep pace with the massive fundraising efforts of his competitors, by early May the supposed “third choice” for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign seemed like an inspired boxer fighting beyond his class.

That was then.

Now, less than a week before Democratic voters choose their candidate for governor on June 9, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds is the front-runner, edging former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former Delegate Brian J. Moran in the latest survey released by Public Policy Polling on Tuesday.

So did the late surge come as a surprise to the soft-spoken senator from Bath County?

“I strive for humility; I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to be humble. Because of that, people sometimes underestimate me, and people underestimate me at their own peril,” Mr Deeds told The Washington Times.

Mr. Deeds has been making way with undecided voters, depicting himself as the “anti-establishment” candidate who likes to talk about himself more than he criticizes his opponents.

“Slow and steady may be what wins the race for him,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads. “While Moran runs attack ads on McAuliffe in Fairfax, Deeds is stepping back and saying, ‘Let’s talk about me and what I can do,’ and that says something to voters.”

The recent surge has turned heads, considering Mr. Deeds was behind Mr. McAuliffe by 16 points in a May 5 poll. Mr. McAuliffe, who counts among his supporters Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, was at the time outspending his opponents by a margin of more than 3-to-1, raising more than $4 million compared with Mr. Deeds’ $700,000 in the first three months of this year.

Virginia law forbids officeholders from raising money for political campaigns during the legislative session, and unlike Mr. Moran or Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell, Mr. Deeds did not resign from public office to campaign for governor.

To make ends meet, the Deeds campaign said on May 13 that it would be laying off paid staffers to fund television ads.

But in the past two weeks, Mr. Deeds, 51, has ridden a wave of voter recognition, sparked in part by a stream of endorsements. The Washington Post endorsed his candidacy on May 22, while the Bristol Herald Courier and the Martinsville Bulletin gave their support to Mr. Deeds on May 31.

“It calls people to notice. I know people are going to recognize me now, and so we’re going to continue to surge all the way until June 9th,” Mr. Deeds said.

Mr. Deeds raised almost $30,000 a day in the week after The Post endorsement, about three times more than what he was drawing per day in the two previous months, according to the latest campaign finance reports released Monday.

The strategy of speaking softly and directly may be paying off in other ways, especially as the other two Democrats in the race play politics. A recent TV ad released by Mr. Moran attacks Mr. McAuliffe for questionable business dealings, while Mr. McAuliffe has fired back with a spot that declares “false attacks won’t create jobs.”

“It definitely goes into Deeds’ favor. Moran and McAuliffe will battle each other, and in the end he may be the one who comes out on top,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist and founder of Virginia Tomorrow.

Nearly all of Mr. Deeds’ bump has come from voters in Northern Virginia - Mr. McAuliffe’s and Mr. Moran’s backyard. This week’s polling data show Mr. Deeds climbed 11 percent, to 23 percent, among Northern Virginia voters in the two weeks since the last poll was released on May 22.

Mr. Deeds attributes the support to the television ads he ran in the D.C. suburbs.

On the campaign trail, the candidate often described as a “conservative Democrat” talks frequently about the need to make higher education more affordable to create a more modernized work force.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave the state an “F” in terms of affordability, so Mr. Deeds says he wants to guarantee loans of up to $4,500 for community college students and establish a rainy-day fund to curb tuition increases during tough economic times.

To create jobs, Mr. Deeds said, he wants to reorient Virginia to a “green” economy, specifically by investing in three biomass facilities to be built by 2020 and by creating large wind farms in the coal fields of Southwest Virginia. If elected, Mr. Deeds said, he would issue an executive order on his first day to reduce government energy consumption by 20 percent in four years.

Mr. Deeds said he opposes a 2006 constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, but he has supported methods in the legislature to deny same-sex partners rights associated with marriage, such as hospital visits.

A self-described introvert with an aw-shucks manner, Mr. Deeds has relied on his quiet persona since running for a seat in the House of Delegates in 1992 in a district that is closer to West Virginia than to Richmond or the District. He walked door to door in that campaign, carrying dog treats in his pocket to win over voters in the canine-friendly confines of Bath County.

While a delegate, and later as a state senator, Mr. Deeds would combine a homespun attitude with a commitment to building consensus for controversial topics.

For example, he won the National Rifle Association’s endorsement during his 2005 race for attorney general. Yet for two years he championed compromise legislation to close the state’s so-called “gun-show loophole.” He also introduced a bill to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission to avoid political battles over the redrawing of legislative districts.

The gun-show loophole legislation failed in the Senate, while the redistricting commission was rejected in the House. But the proposals earned Mr. Deeds a reputation as a consensus builder.

“He’s someone’s who’s quiet about what he feels shouldn’t matter. He doesn’t jump to speak up at every opportunity,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington Democrat and chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “On the other hand, while he isn’t talky, he is persistent - and that’s what counts,” she said.

The result, Mr. Deeds said, is a candidate who believes in talking more about himself and the issues than ranting about his opponents.

“I’m the only candidate who has run a statewide race, I’m the only candidate with statewide appeal,” he said, referring to his defeat in 2005 for the post of attorney general. He lost to Mr. McDonnell by 323 votes of 1.9 million cast, though he was outspent in that race by a margin of about 2-to-1.

But to win the primary, Mr. Deeds will have to translate his recent surge in popularity to votes.

Mr. Kidd noted that polls released for the primary typically survey established Democratic Party voters but do not include newly registered voters - a sector that could side with Mr. McAuliffe because of his nationwide political connections.

“McAuliffe is definitely riding the wave of new enthusiasm for the Democratic Party created by President Obama’s election in November. It all depends on how many of those new converts come out on Tuesday,” Mr. Kidd said.

Mr. Deeds said that, at the end of the day, voters will care about issues, and not who has the best connections or the biggest campaign coffers.

“If this election were about money, there’s a candidate whose name is not Creigh Deeds who can buy the results” Mr. Deeds said. “I’m just convinced it’s not about money.”

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