McLEAN, Va. -- Democrat R. Creigh Deeds said "a hint of racism" underlies some of the visceral opposition to President Barack Obama, even as he declined to identify himself Thursday as "an Obama Democrat."
In a debate with his Republican rival, Bob McDonnell, Deeds also made his clearest statements yet in opposition to Obama's "cap-and-trade" energy bill now before Congress.
Debate moderator David Gregory of NBC's "Meet The Press" asked Deeds whether he thought some of the opposition to the president in Virginia and elsewhere is racially motivated.
"I'd like to think in this country that we are beyond some things, but clearly there's a hint of racism in some of the opposition to President Obama. That is crystal clear," Deeds said near the end of the hour-long debate, the second of four in this campaign.
The question arose after former President Jimmy Carter on Tuesday said some of the anger seems to be rooted in fears of a black president.
McDonnell has sought to connect Deeds closely to cap-and-trade, health reform, the pro-union "card check" bill and federal spending under Obama and the Democratic Congress, but this was the first time the president's race was mentioned in Virginia's campaigns.
McDonnell was not asked the question during the debate. Afterward, he dismissed race as a factor.
"I don't see it and I don't feel it," McDonnell said. "I think these are ideas that are fought over public policy."
Moments earlier, however, Deeds sidestepped Gregory's question about whether he considered himself an "Obama Democrat."
"I like Obama personally. I think he's a smart guy," Deeds said. "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."
Deeds, from rural Bath County, has struggled to connect with black voters. In his primary victory, some of his weakest showings were in predominantly black precincts. The state's most prominent African-American political figure, Democrat and former governor L. Douglas Wilder, has so far refused to endorse Deeds.
McDonnell got the debate's first question: How had his attitudes changed since he wrote a graduate thesis in 1989 that criticized working women and feminists and argued for state policies favoring heterosexual two-parent families over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
As he has done repeatedly since word of the college paper surfaced in a news report two weeks ago, McDonnell noted his 28-year-old daughter served as an Army platoon leader in Iraq.
"That is the ultimate working woman," he said.
Deeds, trailing in recent polls, was the more combative of the two. He hit McDonnell several times on the thesis, once drawing groans from an audience of about 500 northern Virginia business leaders.
Several times Deeds accused McDonnell of lying about his positions on issues ranging from transportation to the energy bill. Deeds said the cap-and-trade bill will hurt business in coal-rich Virginia.
"I've said multiple times now in front of Bob, 'I don't support the bill,' but he keeps lying to people," Deeds said.
The two clashed on taxes and transportation. Deeds said he won't raise taxes, but as he has in the past, made an exception for transportation. McDonnell's campaign says Deeds is tiptoeing around the fact that he will raise the state's gasoline tax.
Deeds said he'll consider any number of proposals to raise money for transportation, but won't raid the state's general fund to do it. He singled out McDonnell's proposal to privatize Virginia's state-owned liquor stores, noting that some of the revenue from alcohol sales funds mental health and substance abuse services.
"Who in this room thinks after what happened at Virginia Tech (that) we're going to cut mental health services," Deeds said. A student gunman with a history of mental illness shot 32 people dead on the Blacksburg campus in 2007.
McDonnell ruled out raising taxes under any circumstances. He said he would fund transportation by borrowing, selling off the state's liquor stores and using money from the state's general fund, tactics Deeds claims will raid public school funding.
Deeds and McDonnell agreed that terrorist suspects housed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should not be brought to Virginia for trials. One major trial in Alexandria, McDonnell said, would cause big disruptions. And Deeds said he felt he knew Obama well enough that he could dissuade him from moving detainees to Virginia.
When asked how they would curtail illegal immigration, Deeds said it's a federal duty, not a state one, to ensure people enter the country legally. And cash-strapped states such as Virginia can't afford to take over the responsibility.
McDonnell noted he was the grandson of an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1912, but suggested newcomers had a duty to speak the nation's dominant language.
"I think if people want to come to America, work hard, play by the rules, learn the English language, pay taxes, assimilate the culture, make a contribution, we ought to welcome them here," McDonnell said.