Michael Gerson

In this environment, Deeds -- a supporter of gun rights who opposed partial-birth abortion -- did what desperate Democrats often do. He attacked his opponent's social conservatism. Bob McDonnell provided an opening with his graduate school thesis, which argued that the two-parent family is superior to "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." It was difficult for McDonnell to dismiss this formulation as the youthful excess of a 34-year-old. And no politician can afford to alienate the fornicator vote.

After the thesis came to light in late August, the race tightened. But for Deeds' Democratic campaign consultants -- drawn to culture-war controversy as though it were catnip, laced with meth, coated in cocaine -- the temptation to overreach was just too much. Realizing the thesis alone was not enough to turn the race, the Deeds campaign asserted it was the "blueprint" for McDonnell's whole legislative career. Commercials asserted that McDonnell opposed contraception for married couples and insurance coverage for mammograms -- charges entirely without merit. Whatever his social views, McDonnell was a pragmatic legislator and attorney general, not an ideological rabble-rouser.

A backlash is building. At a Sept. 17 forum of Northern Virginia business leaders, Deeds' repeated mentions of the McDonnell thesis were eventually met, according to one reporter, with audible "groans from some in the crowd." Virginia newspapers are in broad revolt against Deeds' tactics, employing descriptions such as "flatly dishonest," "below-the-belt and beyond-the-pale" and "disingenuous and deceitful." Some editorialists have taken to calling the Democratic candidate "Dirty Deeds" -- the kind of schoolyard nickname we hated as a child precisely because it stuck. One poll -- which showed the race nearly even in mid-September -- showed Deeds trailing by nine points two weeks later. (A Washington Post poll published Thursday also showed McDonnell nine points ahead.)

What lesson can Democrats draw? Clearly, Deeds misjudged the political environment. In a recent poll, the number of Virginians who cited the McDonnell thesis as their most important issue was less than 1 percent. McDonnell talks about jobs and transportation. Deeds talks about McDonnell's social views. No Virginia Democrat would have picked such a strategy before the campaign began.

But maybe the lesson is even more disturbing for Democrats. In Virginia, neither Obama's charm nor culture-war attacks seem to be working. Maybe, because of "what's going on in Washington," nothing will work.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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