The key moment in the first big debate of Virginia's race for governor yesterday came when moderator David Gregory of NBC News asked Democrat Creigh Deeds: "Are you an Obama Democrat?"
Mr. Deeds has clearly noticed poll numbers showing the president's popularity slipping in Virginia, a state Mr. Obama carried less than a year ago. After much hemming and hawing, Mr. Deeds finally said: "I like [Obama] personally. He's smart and innovative. I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."
Republican Bob McDonnell, who narrowly leads the race, faced his own gotcha question. Asked about his 1989 master's thesis, in which he expressed skepticism on the role of "working women" in modern society, Mr. McDonnell deftly parried by saying he was proud of his "working women" wife and daughter Amy, whose service with the military in Iraq made her "the ultimate working woman."
Ultimately, voters will care more about jobs and the state's transportation infrastructure deficit. But yesterday's debate showed that Democrats are struggling to find a coherent theme for why they should remain in power in Richmond after eight years. Mr. Deeds assured voters in the debate, "I'm not going to raise taxes," but in a tense session with reporters afterward (available on YouTube) he declined to take an anti-tax pledge and left the door open to new taxes to finance transportation projects. As a Washington Post blogger noted, "If Deeds looks as though he is dancing around the tax issue, it isn't the first time."
For his part, Mr. McDonnell didn't stop at the state line in his criticism of Democrats. He lit into Obama administration policies with gusto. It was Mr. Deeds who looked uncomfortable defending his party, and as the candidate now trailing in the polls he clearly appeared disappointed he couldn't land more than glancing blows on his opponent.