Bob McDonnell, his Republican opponent, wrote in a graduate school thesis 20 years ago that Republicans must shield traditional, heterosexual two-parent families from the effects of abortion, feminism, welfare, "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
The paper, first reported Sunday by The Washington Post, could shake up his race against Deeds, who trails McDonnell in statewide polling. In the past three weeks, Deeds has stressed McDonnell's close support for legislative curbs against abortion rights.
It also comes as McDonnell sought to brush aside the issue and present himself as a pragmatist focused on unemployment and the economy, piling up endorsements from some of the state's most powerful business groups and appealing to the moderates and independents who swing statewide elections in Virginia.
But before conspiracy theorists start rumors that the thesis was slipped to the Post by a Deeds supporter, it was actually McDonnell himself who tipped off a Post reporter:
The Washington Post learned of the thesis in a recent interview with McDonnell, who mentioned it in answering a question about his political roots. McDonnell brought up the paper in reference to a pair of Republican congressmen whom he interviewed as part of his research. McDonnell then offered: "I wrote my thesis on welfare policy."
In a statement released by his campaign, McDonnell, 55, said his beliefs have changed over time and that he should be judged on 14 years in the House of Delegates and more than three years as attorney general.
McDonnell was 34, after he had served in the Army and three years before he won a Virginia Beach seat in the House of Delegates, when he wrote the 69-page document with 24 pages of bibliography.
Titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade," he wrote with sometimes evangelistic fervor and of the primacy of a "God-ordained covenantal form" of family. The paper blamed federal law and tax policies and rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court since the 1960s for usurping parental authority and eroding the family structure.
In his conclusions, he states clearly a belief that "alternative lifestyles" don't necessarily merit the same considerations as traditional families. On page 65 he wrote: "every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators. The cost of sin should fall on the sinner, not the taxpayer."
In the House, McDonnell was among the most outspoken opponents of abortion. He was a key mover behind bills to require the notification of the parents or guardians when a girl under 18 seeks an abortion in Virginia.
Families, he wrote, are divinely chartered. "The family is an institution that existed antecedent to civil government and hence is not subject to being defined by it," McDonnell wrote.
He laments the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, but also calls the court's ruling one year earlier that the government had no business interfering with the right of unwed people to use contraceptives illogical. At the time, he noted, every state outlawed sex between unmarried people.
He despairs in the document about the need for both parents in a family to earn paychecks, a necessity he blames on increasing federal tax burdens. On page 40, he notes "a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family."
He also takes note of an issue then just germinating: "transmitting indecent or obscene material across telephone lines." As attorney general, he targeted Internet child pornographers.
He also wrote that the GOP should act to "correct the conventional folklore about the separation of church and state," arguing that the First Amendment merely prevented government from establishing religion.
Some Republican proposals, though well-intended, were outside what conservatives felt a limited federal role should be, he wrote. The GOP's initiative to instruct "character education" in public schools, he said, "belongs in the church or, to the degree it rationally fosters good citizenship, the states."
McDonnell was not made available to The Associated Press for an interview Sunday.
"Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older. When I left the academic world and went into public service my record has been one of proposing innovative ideas, building consensus and getting bipartisan results," he said in the campaign's statement.
Deeds campaign adviser Mo Elleithee said the 20-year-old document is relevant because it shows McDonnell's "blueprint for governing."
"He wrote this paper, then spent the next 20 years working to implement his social agenda as policy. It's the side of Bob McDonnell that his campaign doesn't want you to see," Elleithee said.
How damaging the disclosure is depends on how McDonnell addresses it in coming weeks, said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax.
"He's done a good job positioning himself as a moderate. The Democrats would be foolish not to try to exploit it," Rozell said. It's not a paper written by a sophomore but by a grown man ready to run for elected office, he added.
But McDonnell's adversaries have to establish that his beliefs are unchanged.
And while McDonnell says his beliefs have changed, too strong a repudiation of the thesis could alienate the conservatives who are his base of support, Rozell said.