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Testing the President's Reach

The governor's race in Virginia and the public's mood about our president.

McLEAN, Va.--Will the bitter, smoldering feelings let loose by Washington's health care fight ricochet across the Potomac River and decide Virginia's race for governor? Will a Republican be able to escape his right-wing record and his incendiary past writings to rebrand himself as a pragmatist?

The battle for the Virginia statehouse always gets outsized national attention because of its unusual timing, just a year after a presidential election. Virginia results are typically dissected with the kind of passion that readers bring to sorting through the arcane symbols in Dan Brown's novels.

This time, all the symbology, to use a favorite word of Brown's, may be justified. President Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia's electoral votes since 1964, and his drop in the polls has already had a powerful influence on the direction of this year's Virginia contest.

As Obama's numbers fell among independents, so did those of R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee whose chances of victory now depend in part on the president's ability to stabilize his own standing.

But Deeds got an enormous boost from an unlikely source: a master's dissertation written by Republican opponent Bob McDonnell, a one-time protege of Pat Robertson, that was unearthed by The Washington Post.

Among other things, McDonnell, in a rather interesting essay that he authored when he was 34, said that working mothers were detrimental to the family, and that he opposed a Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for married couples. He also had some less than kind words about homosexuals.

All graduate students would envy McDonnell for the impact of his academic writing, even if the Republican now wishes his thesis had stayed on a dusty shelf. Deeds, who had fallen well-behind McDonnell during the Democratic Party's awful summer, started closing the gap. A poll this week showed McDonnell's lead was down to five points.

"Right now," said one Democratic adviser, "this is a race between Barack Obama's spending and Bob McDonnell's thesis."

Deeds' summer polling doldrums reflected a campaign that was not prepared for battle after its runaway victory in a June Democratic primary. McDonnell, in the meantime, was busily recasting himself as a problem-solver who cared primarily about jobs and economic growth.

But Deeds (along with just about every other Democrat in the state) was also hurt by Obama's falling popularity among independents worried about federal spending. And rank-and-file Democrats who adored Obama last year were puzzled and demobilized by the president's lack of fight as the health care debate droned on.

The McDonnell and Deeds campaigns have the same reading of the public's mood: McDonnell relentlessly tries to move the campaign to national issues, including health care and cap-and-trade legislation, trying to stoke conservative energy and appeal to middle-of-the-road voters less enthusiastic about Obama than they were last year.

Deeds wants the debate to focus on Virginia -- above all the staple issues of roads and schools that powered the victories of Mark Warner, the former governor elected to the U.S. Senate last year, and incumbent Tim Kaine.

Deeds also hopes they will look past McDonnell's new image to the culture warrior whose emphatic social conservatism would make him unacceptable to the state's legions of suburban voters, particularly women.

The thesis not only undid McDonnell's methodical effort to bury his history, but also prompted voters (and the media) to pay more attention to his record. Deeds will be encouraging them in their research.

Yet there will be no escaping the Obama effect, which will come in three parts. First, Obama's health care speech last week began a rehabilitation process that is already altering the political mood, to Deeds' advantage. A lethargic Democratic base has flocked to Deeds, pushed by the McDonnell thesis and pulled back in by a renewed confidence in their president.

Obama will also be vital in turning out African-Americans and Virginians under 30. Each group represented about a fifth of the state's 2008 presidential vote. The Deeds-McDonnell showdown will be the first major test of the president's ability to deliver his backers when his name is not on the ballot.

But then comes the tricky third part: While getting Obama's help where he needs it, Deeds still must keep the campaign from getting mired in Washington's politics of recrimination. If the Democrat can persuade Virginians that McDonnell is no moderate and gets them thinking about clogged highways and the public schools they value, he wins. Doing that will be easier if Obama can change the political winds, even just a little bit.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group