MELISSA BLOCK, host:
One major target for Republicans this year is the Virginia governorship. It's one of just two gubernatorial elections this year and it could become a referendum on the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama carried Virginia last year and Democrats have been on a winning streak there. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, concerns about the economy may give Republicans the upper hand.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The race in Virginia pits former Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, against Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds. McDonnell was raised in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the vote-rich region of the state that trends democratic. McDonnell has been pushing a message of fiscal conservatism and economic growth.
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Mr. BOB McDONNELL (Republican, Gubernatorial Candidate): I'll be a jobs governor, bringing people together, getting results for Virginians.
NAYLOR: Polls have shown McDonnell with a steady lead over Deeds. Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at Virginia's George Mason University, says McDonnell's emphasis is well-advised.
Professor MARK ROZELL (Political Science, George Mason University): I think McDonnell should be talking about the economy a lot because that is the number one issue in this campaign. There is a lot of economic anxiety out there and that's true throughout the country, of course, not just in Virginia where we happen to be having an election this year. And that issue — the general state of the economy, job security — is having the biggest impact of all.
NAYLOR: But that's not what Democrat Deeds wants to talk about. He's been playing up McDonnell's views on social issues. They were brought to the fore after The Washington Post unearthed a master's thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago while a grad student at Regent University, the school founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. In the thesis, McDonnell said, among other things, that government policy should favor married couples over, quote, "co-habitators, homosexuals or fornicators," and that "working women and feminists were detrimental to the family." At a debate yesterday, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Deeds repeatedly launched into McDonnell's conservative views.
State Senator CREIGH DEEDS (Democrat, Gubernatorial Candidate): My opponent, in his years in the legislature and as attorney general, never wrote a bill to create a job or to expand an educational opportunity. Instead, he's been focused on a narrow band of social issues and a social agenda.
NAYLOR: McDonnell has dismissed the thesis as a 20-year-old document and academic exercise. He points out his wife has worked in and out of the home as have his daughters, one of whom served as an Army captain in Baghdad. They were in the debate audience.
Mr. McDONNELL: Creigh, there you go again.
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Mr. McDONNELL: Here's my wife and daughter. I've told you I support working women. I'm frankly pretty insulted that you would say to my daughter, that I supported and loved for 28 years, to go fight in Iraq, that I don't support working women. Five out of my 10 deputies at the attorney general's office were working women.
NAYLOR: Deeds has been playing defense some, too. While Barack Obama won Virginia last year with 52 percent of the vote, economic jitters and concerns over issues from health insurance to cap and trade have led Deeds to put some distance between himself and the White House.
State Sen. DEEDS: I like Barack Obama. Personally, I think he's a smart guy. He's an innovative guy. And we agree on great many things and I'm proud to have his support.
Unidentified Man: But you're not an Obama Democrat.
State Sen. DEEDS: I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: Okay.
NAYLOR: Democrats have been ascendant in Virginia. Aside from the president's victory last fall, the state's two U.S. senators are Democrats, and Democrats won the last two governor's races. They'll be battling more than the issues this year but also something of a political curse: since 1977, the year after Jimmy Carter was elected president, the party in the White House has lost the Virginia State House in every election.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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