Creigh Deeds crawls toward the finish line

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There’s little doubt that would-be governor Creigh Deeds is currently stuck between Barack and a hard place. Long known as a genial, gun-lovin’ Democrat, Deeds has been forced to fight his current battle against Bob McDonnell—a slick, well-coiffed conservative Ken doll—well outside his comfort zone.

Consider this: In their previous match-up, a hard-fought 2005 campaign for Attorney General, Deeds actually ran to the right of McDonnell on many issues. Hell, he even picked up the endorsement of the NRA—surely a first for a southern Dem challenging a family values Republican for a law-and-order job.

To his credit, Deeds only lost that contest by 360 votes, but his chances of refighting that campaign on the same playing field have always been slim. First off, McDonnell wasn’t going to let Deeds outflank him again—he made sure to court gun rights groups, and easily secured the NRA seal of approval this time around. Secondly, the governor’s race is far more complex than running for AG, from a tactical perspective—and it’s not a fight that plays to Deeds’ strengths.

The main problem is that Deeds’ rural southern base was always going to be inclined to vote Republican in a statewide contest, and Northern Virginia voters (who have provided the decisive margin of victory for the Dems’ recent streak of senatorial, gubernatorial and presidential wins) aren’t enthusiastic enough about the man to swing the election his way. Compounding the problem is Deeds’ history of bucking the liberal line on gun control—a heterodox position which has, among other things, cost him the crucial endorsement of Virginia’s first black governor, Douglas Wilder.

All of this has left Deeds in the awkward position of having to defend his support for a president who carried the Commonwealth for the Dems less than a year ago. After declining to identify himself as an “Obama Democrat” in a previous debate, Deeds belatedly used last Tuesday’s candidate forum to declare, “I’m proud of the President, I worked very hard for his election last year.”

Still, all of this doesn’t mean that McDonnell should already be renting his Richmond-bound U-Haul. After all, as smooth and well-oiled as the McDonnell machine might be, there’s still a chance that he could stumble down the home stretch, essentially blowing the game in the final inning due to a series of unforced errors.

A perfect example is the embarrassing insult uttered by staunch McDonnell supporter (and, intriguingly, long-time Democratic donor) Sheila Johnson, who openly mocked Deeds’, shall we say, unpolished oratory at a recent rally. “We need someone who can really communicate,” she told the crowd, going on to laud McDonnell and dismiss “his o-o-o-o-opponent” as an ineffectual speaker.

Inexplicably, the McDonnell campaign initially refused to distance itself from this cheap shot, putting out a combative press release lampooning Deeds’ “difficulty expressing… any positive vision for Virginia’s future.” They’ve since backtracked—and Johnson has apologized—but the damage may already be done. Judging by the raucous chants of “Deeds not words” that have been greeting the candidate recently, it may turn out that McDonnell’s smug taunting was the best thing that could have happened to his Democratic opponent.

As Sheila Johnson would say: only t-t-time will t-t-t-t-tell.

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