Divisive social issues like abortion don't usually play well in Virginia's statewide elections. Republican Bob McDonnell coasted into the governor's office in 2009 largely because he refused to engage his Democratic opponent on such issues. Instead, McDonnell talked about jobs and the economy.
Now, Virginia Republicans are hoping their presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, will follow McDonnell's lead in the battleground state in November as President Obama continues to bait him into a debate over women's health issues.
"The top issue is jobs, hands down," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. "In 2009, our opponent didn't have much to offer on the subject. In 2012, the president doesn't want to talk about his record on the subject. And so you get divisions, distractions and grenade-throwing."
McDonnell's 2009 opponent, Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds, repeatedly hammered McDonnell's conservative views and ran commercials about a college-era paper McDonnell wrote that criticized working women and gays. McDonnell still won by 18 points with overwhelming support from women.
"The national mood created an opportunity for the other guy to crossover his past. He didn't want to talk about things he believed because he didn't have to," Deeds said. "Our polling was very bad and suggested the only thing we could do was expose the other guy's record. That was what the polling suggested we do for better or worse."
National Democrats are employing a strategy similar to Deed's in Virginia now. Despite polls consistently ranking the economy as the top issue for voters, Democrats have looked to boost turnout among female voters by painting Romney as hostile to women. Romney's responding by continuing to talk about the economy.
Obama's supporters defended the strategy, saying it's as much about rallying the president's supporters as undercutting Romney.
"Everyone's focused on the economy, and that's clearly the issue that's in the forefront of people's mind," said Jean Cunningham, co-chairwoman for Women for Obama in Virginia. "But I am seeing energy in younger women that I didn't necessarily see in 2008."
Unlike McDonnell, Romney is having a harder time avoiding debate over some social issues. The most recent eruption was over a claim by a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, Todd Akin, who put the entire party on the defensive with his claim that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant.
"Romney needs to change the conversation," said Stephen Farnsworth, a Virginia political expert at the University of Mary Washington. "He cannot win if he cannot do a better job of impacting the political narrative in Virginia and around the country. If this election is a referendum on Missouri Senate candidates and tax returns, Romney does not win."