Virginia Governor's Race Turns to Gender Politics Over 20-Year-Old Master's Thesis

An improbable and bizarre turn in the Virginia governor's race has enabled Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds to stumble onto what might be his best shot at victory in an uphill climb to the Governor's Mansion.

Deeds and Democratic allies are pushing out a 20-year-old college thesis from Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, which Democrats are now ridiculing in campaign material and trying to push as McDonnell's secret "blueprint" for how he wants to reshape the state.

The thesis, featured in a Washington Post story on Sunday, describes working women and feminists as "detrimental to the family." It justifies discrimination against gays and describes a Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples as "illogical."

Now tripping up the former state attorney general's otherwise smooth and front-running campaign, McDonnell was forced to respond on Monday.

"I strongly support women in the military and women in the workplace, and for my opponent to suggest otherwise is insulting to me and to my family," McDonnell said.

McDonnell was 34 when he wrote in 1989, "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade," as a master's and law student at Regent University, a Christian college founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

On Monday, McDonnell described himself as a "college student at the time, albeit a little older college student, within an academic environment and completely not restrained by the real policy world at the time."

He refuted charges that he supports workplace discrimination against women, noting that his daughters have master's degrees and that the oldest had served with the Army in Iraq.

"The things I wrote 20 years ago in an academic setting and the influences on my life at that time, many of them have changed because of my family, my job, my legislative experience, my real world experience," McDonnell said during an 80-minute conference call with reporters.

It's unclear whether this flap has the potency to replicate another infamous Virginia political slide -- former Sen. George Allen's fall to Democrat Jim Webb after he was caught on camera calling an Indian-American Webb worker, "macaca."

But with discontent over the economy and health care reform fueling GOP strength, Deeds has seized on the thesis as a potential springboard. He has two months to turn the race around. A Washington Post poll released Aug. 16 showed McDonnell with 47 percent to Deeds' 40 percent, in a survey of 1,002 adults in The Old Dominion State. The poll conducted Aug. 11-14 had a margin of error of 3 points.

"They're going to play this as long and as hard as they can because it may be their best shot," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Deeds' campaign Web site refers to the contents of the thesis as "the core of Bob McDonnell's extreme ideological agenda."

"We've said all along that Bob's election year rhetoric about prioritizing jobs and the economy is nothing more than a facade. Now, voters are getting to see a glimpse of the Bob McDonnell that his campaign is desperately trying to hide," the site says.

The Democratic Party of Virginia released a video, "Bob McDonnell's Secret Blueprint for Virginia," highlighting news reports about the thesis, set to ominous, movie-soundtrack music, resulting in a mash-up that portrays McDonnell as Virginia's own Manchurian candidate.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine blasted out an e-mail Monday saying the thesis "raises serious questions about his plan for Virginia if elected."

Sabato said the academic paper, while stippled with statements that are out of touch with popular views today, on a whole reflected the conservative "family" platform heavily promoted by Republicans during the "heart of the Reagan era."

Because the thesis is dated, McDonnell may be able to avoid Allen's fate, Sabato added, provided he effectively distances himself from the work and doesn't let the issue consume the campaign.

"Everything depends on how they walk and talk this thesis back," he said.'s Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.