Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of most difficult decisions a political campaign has to make is how to respond to allegations of scandal.
If you don't challenge the allegations, you lose the opportunity to persuade voters that they aren't true. That's what happened to John Kerry after he took weeks to respond to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
If you do respond to allegations, you risk giving them a broader platform than they otherwise would have enjoyed. Gary Bauer's quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 floundered in part because, as the New York Times put it, he "called a news conference to deny rumors almost no one had heard -- about improprieties no one seems to believe occurred." Bauer became the candidate who'd denied having an extramarital affair, which, while better than being the candidate who admitted to an extramarital affair, still isn't a good thing.
With that context, Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia, seems to be having success finding a middle ground between responding and not to the allegations that came out of graduate thesis -- that he opposes contraception, opposes working women, etc.
His strategy appears to be twofold. First, he's addressing the issues obliquely, by including tons of women in his ads. For example, this ad and this ad don't mention the thesis. If you hadn't heard about the thesis, they probably wouldn't clue you into the controversy. Both allow the McDonnell campaign to stress themes he'd probably be emphasizing anyways (supporting the military, fighting sexual predators), while also sending the message that he's not a sexist.
Secondly, he's trying to play offense and defense at the same time by attacking Democrat Creigh Deeds for dishonest attacks. This ad is one example of that:
Earlier, McDonnell responded by addressing the thesis explicitly in an ad where he spoke directly to the camera -- a move that retrospectively strikes me as too defensive. Of course, it's easy for me to say that now, when two new polls show McDonnell regaining a sizable lead.
GOVERNING Politics is the place for news and analysis on campaigns and elections. If there's a ballot measure in California, a legislative election in Alabama, a mayoral election in Anchorage or a governor's race in Rhode Island, GOVERNING Politics probably is writing about it. We love everything about state and local politics, from polls and campaign ads to policy debates and demographic trends.