- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

His overwhelming victory and a presidential phone call behind him, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds jumped into election mode Wednesday, trying to paint his Republican opponent as tied to special interests and an extension of former President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Republican strategists began focusing on a candidate they had put at the bottom of their talking points, a candidate they didn’t necessarily expect former Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell to face in a race in which Republicans are trying to signal that the party has rebounded from its bruising losses of 2008.

“The general election will be a very stark choice of whether Virginia continues to move forward in the tradition of [U.S. Sen. Mark] Warner and [Gov. Tim] Kaine, or move backwards with the disastrous economic and social agenda of Bob McDonnell and George Bush,” Mr. Deeds said in an e-mail to supporters. “He is going to try and buy this election with special interest dollars, but Virginia simply can’t afford four years of Bob McDonnell.”

Experts say the race between the candidates will be tight, as Democrats didn’t choose their most liberal nominee- Terry McAuliffe - and Mr. Deeds did so well in voter-rich Northern Virginia. Mr. Deedsgarnered 47 percent of the vote in Arlington, 50 percent in Fairfax County and 59 percent in Fauquier County.

Both candidates are running as long-term state politicians who will likely campaign without the surprises of a Mr. McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whom Mr. Deeds defeated.

This will be a rematch of sorts for the two candidates. Mr. McDonnell defeated Mr. Deeds by 323 votes in the race for state attorney general four years ago. But this race will be different. Instead of safety issues, strategists said the election will hinge on fiscal issues, the economy and job creation.

And a loss by the Democrats would be a referendum on the way the Obama administration has handled the economic crisis, said Mike Schrimpf, communications director for the Republican Governors Association (RGA).

“It is going to show that the way the Democrats have been handling the number-one issue of the day has not met the standards of voters in Virginia,” he said.

A Democratic loss in November would not be unusual. Since 1977, the party that held the White House lost the governor’s mansion in Virginia. Signaling how serious the Democrats will fight to retain the governor’s mansion, President Obama called Mr. Deeds in the middle of a press conference in Richmond Wednesday to congratulate him and tell him that he was committed to helping him win.

Mr. Deeds appeared with Mr. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, along with former rivals Mr. McAuliffe and former state Delegate Brian J. Moran. At the news conference, Mr. McAuliffe promised to “do personally anything Creigh Deeds asks me to do,” to help him get elected. Mr. Kaine promised substantial funds from the national party.

Both parties already have been active in Virginia. Before the primary, the Democratic Governors Association spent about $3 million in attack ads against Mr. McDonnell. Mr. McDonnell’s campaign received $2 million from the RGA, and $1.5 million from the RNC.

Tucker Martin, communications director for the McDonnell campaign, disputed the assertion that Republicans weren’t prepared to take on Mr. Deeds. He said there has been a McDonnell campaign worker following Mr. Deeds at times and that a three-way primary was difficult to predict.

There was “always going to be a low turnout primary and always some uncertainty on who would prevail,” he said.

At the Republican State Convention in Richmond last month, Mr. McAuliffe was the punch line of many jokes. Mr. Deeds wasn’t mentioned by name.

However, Republicans are quickly moving to paint Mr. Deeds as a free-spending Democrat. Already they have begun stressing Mr. Deeds’ support by the AFL-CIO and his vote for an increaseto the state gasoline tax.

“When you look at Creigh Deeds, you are looking at a traditional big spending, tax raising Democrat,” Mr. Martin said. “He is a national Democrat as far as his model and how he views national government.”

Instead, Republicans hope to stress Mr. McDonnell’s record as attorney general, his fiscal conservatism and his ties to Northern Virginia, where he was raised.

“McDonnell is going to run as who he is - small government, low tax, practical conservative, who wants to create a strong business environment for Virginia,” said Frank Donetelli, the head of GOPAC, a Republican political action committee. “Deeds might come from a different part of the state but still is a very leftist candidate.”

In terms of fiscal issues, Democrats are going to try to highlight Mr. McDonnell’s refusal of $125 million in federal stimulus money set aside for the commonwealth.

“I think the Democrats are going to hang that like a cow’s bell around the attorney general’s neck and ring it until Election Day,” said George W. Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

And Republicans may need to distance themselves from hot button issues such as abortion and gay marriage in a race in which social issues may sway voters in Northern Virginia.

“The Republicans need to be very quiet about the social issues,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They’ll have to communicate to those communities by telephone and e-mail. To the extent that McDonnell stresses social issues, he will lose ground rapidly.”

Republicans have said they will not shy away from the label of pro-life and anti-gay marriage candidate.

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