RICHMOND, Va. -- Trailing in polls, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds on Monday blasted his Republican foe in Virginia's gubernatorial race as no friend of working women or gays and twice accused him of lying.
Deeds' pugnacious style reflected the urgency Democrats feel three weeks from Election Day as they struggle to keep the governor's seat for a third four-year term despite a political environment far different from a 2008 race that Barack Obama and the Democrats swept.
Republican Robert McDonnell, comforted by polls showing him with a solid lead of 8 to 9 percentage points, appeared relaxed and confident in the first prime-time televised debate. That was even as Deeds again lashed him over a stridently conservative graduate thesis he wrote in 1989 that criticized women with careers, gays and unmarried people who live together.
The sharp tone reflects the stakes before both parties in an election viewed as an early voter verdict on Obama and an allied Democratic Congress.
The issues of taxes, transportation, energy policy and rights of gays and women dominated the third of four debates and the only one carried by stations in every market statewide.
Deeds took the offensive early on the gender issue as both candidates pledged to continue an executive order mandating equal pay for male and female state government workers.
"Women constitute 54 percent of our population, government should look like the people we represent," Deeds said, pledging that half of his cabinet would be women.
Deeds quickly flagged the thesis McDonnell wrote at age 34 for a master's and law degree at Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson's Regent University, the school's pro-male hiring policies and McDonnell's vote in 2001 against a resolution calling for equal pay when he was a member of the House of Delegates.
"I've been married to a working woman for 33 years," McDonnell countered. "My oldest daughter was a platoon leader in Iraq when Creigh and I ran against each other a couple of years ago, and I'd say that's the ultimate working woman."
The Democrat accused McDonnell of lying about positions Deeds had taken on energy and tax policies.
McDonnell claims in television ads that Deeds supports tax increases and a federal cap-and-trade energy measure that would cost Virginia families thousands of dollars a year. Deeds said the Republican is "spending literally millions of dollars lying to the people of Virginia."
And he renewed the charge in response to McDonnell's claim that Deeds supported a $1 billion boost in taxes, saying he had just heard McDonnell "restate a lie."
McDonnell told reporters after the debate that he found Deeds' calling him a liar "to be really below the dignity of a gubernatorial campaign."
Deeds said later that perhaps it wasn't the best choice of words, "but the fact is, it's not true. I guess if you say it enough times, that doesn't make it any more true than it was the first time."
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states electing governors this fall, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, Obama's choice as Democratic National Committee chairman, has pledged at least $6 million to his home state to keep the GOP from winning his seat for the first time in eight years.
Deeds entered the debate needing a breakout moment.
Over the weekend, Deeds continued to ramp up attacks against McDonnell, mostly on the thesis but also on his plan to privatize Virginia's state-owned liquor stores to help pay for his transportation package.
That came as Democratic leaders ranging from Kaine to U.S. Rep. Jim Moran urged Deeds to ease off the attacks.
As Democrats struggle to energize black voters and women -- key components of any winning Democratic campaign -- polls by The Washington Post and by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. over the past week showed McDonnell with a solid lead and faring much better among independent voters than Deeds.
The Post poll showed that the thesis ranked low among voters' chief concerns heading into the Nov. 3 election.
The League of Women Voters and AARP sponsored the debate.