By Alexander Burns
Influential Virginia Democrats are calling on gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds to spend less time attacking Republican Bob McDonnell's controversial graduate thesis and focus on a stronger, more positive message for the closing weeks of his campaign.
In just the past few days, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Democratic National Committee Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe have all expressed doubts that Deeds's current message will be enough to overcome his opponent's persistent polling advantage. Deeds's ads highlighting the conservative social views expressed in McDonnell's thesis paper have helped narrow the former state attorney general's lead, but McDonnell still holds an edge less than a month before the election.
McAuliffe, who came in second to Deeds in the June gubernatorial primary, publicly urged Deeds in a forum Tuesday: "Tell people what you're for."
Addressing an audience at Harvard's Institute of Politics, McAuliffe said that McDonnell's Regent University master's degree thesis was "very right-wing" and said the former Virginia attorney general believed working women represented "the destruction of the home life."
But, when asked by a student whether Deeds's emphasis on McDonnell's writings was appropriate, McAuliffe suggested his former opponent might be overdoing it and losing voters in the process.
"Should it be the basis of your campaign? No," said McAuliffe. "My advice, I don't like to talk about my personal conversations with candidates, but would not be far from what you're saying: Tell people what you stand for. People don't vote the negative stuff."
"What are you going to do to fix transportation?" McAuliffe asked. "Virginia is the ninth wealthiest state in America; we are 37th on teacher pay . We're one of the few states next year that no longer will be able to apply for federal highway matching funds, cause we don't have the state grant. We are broke. That's what we should be talking about."
And in a jab at the newspaper that delivered a crucial endorsement to Deeds that helped in McAuliffe's defeat, McAuliffe cracked that Deeds wasn't even the most effective attack dog in the campaign.
"Creigh pretty much doesn't have to say anything because the Washington Post is out there every day doing it," McAuliffe joked.
Deeds spokesman Mike Gehrke countered that the candidate is currently airing a mixture of positive and negative ads. In the last two weeks, the campaign has begun running spots featuring the support of Sen. Mark Warner, a popular former governor of Virginia.
"Creigh's out talking about transportation, he's talking about how to expand access to higher education and raise teacher pay," Gehrke said. "We also think we have to point out the differences between the social agenda that we think Bob McDonnell has pursued and Creigh Deeds's record on economic development and education."
According to the Deeds camp, the Democrat's campaign intends to continue increasing its focus on issues such as education in the few remaining weeks of the race.
McAuliffe, an experienced campaigner who sent an email fundraising appeal on Deeds's behalf but has otherwise kept a low profile since losing the primary, was not alone in voicing his worries about Deeds's current approach.
Moran told The Washington Post Monday that Deeds should make a stronger case for himself, instead of going wholly negative in the homestretch.
"People know about the thesis - the people who care about the thesis, they're in Northern Virginia and they read The Post and they know. But there's got to be more. He's got to give people a reason to vote for Creigh," said Moran, whose brother, former state Del. Brian Moran, also lost to Deeds in the gubernatorial primary.
Like McAuliffe, Moran suggested that he had offered similar advice to Deeds directly.
In two automated polls conducted over the last 10 days, McDonnell held leads of nine and 11 points. But Democrats say Deeds's internal polling has the candidates within five points of each other - the same margin a Washington Post survey showed several weeks back. Deeds has trailed McDonnell in every public poll of the race since the middle of June.
On Tuesday, Kaine argued to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Deeds was in a position to win and "the gap has largely been closed because of significant concerns about what is Bob McDonnell's agenda and whether his agenda is truly representative of what Virginians want."
But, Kaine acknowledged, Deeds still needs to get "over the goal line" and it is "up to Creigh in the late innings to make the simple sell for himself."
Gehrke said the wave of public advice for Deeds wasn't a sign of concern - just a function of the calendar.
"I think it's just a factor of where we are in the race," he said. "People see the finish line in the near distance and the light at the end of the tunnel and they're excited."