Thursday, October 22, 2009

In a gubernatorial debate that covered little new ground, Virginia Democrat R. Creigh Deeds went to an extreme.

Mr. Deeds, during the candidates’ fourth debate Tuesday night, repeated nearly verbatim the two-minute closing remarks he delivered during their third debate the previous week, even though polls show voters are not identifying with the message.

In a race watched closely across the nation, the candidate’s decision to repeat himself went beyond a politician’s usual tendency to recycle material. Mr. Deeds parroted the references he had used to his Uncle Frank’s summer camp and President Truman’s straight talk. He also promised on both occasions to give scholarships to students who achieve B averages in high school and closed in each case with a pledge to make Virginia the “best state” in the country for business, for education and “for you.”

On Tuesday, he said, “I’ll make Virginia the best state for business, the best state for education, the best state for you.”

Last week, he said he would “make Virginia the best state in the country for business, the best state in the country for education and the best state in the country for you.”

Mr. Deeds’ campaign was not surprised by the repetition.

“Creigh has a stump speech,” said Deeds spokesman Mike Gehrke. “He likes to get across certain points about who he is and why he is running and that is not something that changes for him. His story is what it is and he’s comfortable with it.”

Republican Robert F. McDonnell gave a different closing statement in the two debates, which is standard practice for candidates in major elections. The latest public-opinion polls show that Mr. Deeds’ standard patter may not be enough.

In a survey released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling firm, Mr. Deeds trailed the Republican by 12 points. On Sept. 29, a similar poll by the same firm showed Mr. McDonnell with a five-point edge.

While 56 percent of those queried had a favorable opinion of Mr. McDonnell, only 41 percent had a favorable opinion of Mr. Deeds.

The Public Policy Poll of 666 likely Virginia voters was conducted from Oct. 16 to 19 and has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.

The poll also showed that Mr. Deeds’ support among black voters has slipped. He received 68 percent support among black voters, down from 75 percent in the firm’s September poll.

“Creigh Deeds is in a pretty dire position right now,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “Democrats aren’t very enthusiastic about this election. He has to hope that visits on his behalf from folks like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton get a lot more of the party’s base out to the polls.”

Mr. Clinton appeared with Mr. Deeds at a rally in Northern Virginia on Tuesday. The president is scheduled to campaign with him on Oct. 27 at Old Dominion University.

The Deeds campaign debuted a television advertisement Wednesday featuring Mr. Obama that is scheduled to air in the Richmond and Hampton Roads markets, areas with strong concentrations of black voters. Mr. Obama also sent an e-mail to Democratic supporters across the state asking them to support the Democrat by voting and volunteering.

But squandering Tuesday’s opportunity to tell voters something they might not have known about him before could be costly to Mr. Deeds.

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston who wrote the book “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV,” said candidates should expect that voters will watch every debate - especially in the age of the Internet.

“To me it suggests bad preparation,” he said. “If the format gives them a closing statement, they know that they have to prepare ‘X’ number of these and it’s a little almost insulting to the voters’ intelligence to be given literally the same language over and over again. It seems like they didn’t go to the trouble to think of something new.”

Mr. Deeds also retold an anecdote about his great-uncle’s summer camp that was familiar from his campaign speeches across the state.

On Tuesday, Mr. Deeds said, “The first day of camp, Uncle Frank would always look at his campers and say, ‘Boys, you’re going to get out of this camp exactly what you put into it.’ And I’ve got to admit, when I was 7 years old, I had no idea what that old man meant. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that’s the lesson of life.”

During the Oct. 12 debate, Mr. Deeds said, “On the first day of summer camp, Uncle Frank would say to his campers, ‘Boys, you’re going to get out of this camp exactly what you put into it.’ When I was 7 years old, I had no idea what that old man meant. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that’s the lesson of life.”

Defending his boss, Mr. Gehrke said, “You’re accusing him of message discipline.” He added that Mr. Deeds concedes he’s not the “smoothest talker in the race.”

Mr. Deeds himself mentioned that point in both sets of his closing remarks.

“I’m not the most eloquent of speakers, but like Harry Truman I’ll tell the truth and I’ll always work hard to get things done,” he said on Tuesday - only a slight variation from his Oct. 12 acknowledgment: “I’m not the most eloquent speaker, but like Harry Truman I tell the truth and I work hard to get things done.”

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