Michael Gerson

R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, seems poised to lose the jewel in President Obama's political crown.

In November 2008, Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win the electoral votes of the Commonwealth. Obama's victory was a case study in how he might transform American politics, building an alliance of new voters and suburban Southerners to defeat Republicans at the heart of their power.

A year later, the Virginia governor's race displays a Democratic promise gone crusty and stale. The Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, threatens to turn a lead into a rout. Democratic leaders, getting a head start on recrimination, fault Deeds' political skills, but mainly his tirelessly negative campaign. While McDonnell has talked of jobs and roads, Deeds has spent millions on ads warning of the Talibanization of Virginia by Mullah McDonnell, who was accused of opposing birth control, women in the workplace and breast cancer screening. The charges did not stick. One unnamed White House official recently complained that Obama "had drawn a road map to victory in Virginia. Deeds chose another path."

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But there is another explanation. Perhaps Deeds and Obama have declined in support for the same reason -- because they are taking the identical path.

It is difficult to remember now, but Obama was elected largely for his tonal, not ideological, appeal. His announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., denounced "the smallness of our politics." At the time, Obama adviser David Axelrod explained, "If you can inspire people and if you can give them something real to believe in, you can advance your campaign without tearing everybody else down." During the primaries, Obama ended up benefiting from the contrast to Hillary and Bill Clinton's wrecking crew.

But the tonal candidate also had a conventionally liberal policy agenda. And as that agenda has run into resistance -- on spending, health care and climate legislation -- the president's tone has utterly changed.

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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