If any state can claim to sit smack in the bull’s-eye of American politics, it’s Virginia. Practically everything screams “middle”: a divided economy and culture, with thriving but anxious suburban haves and struggling rural have-nots; split partisan preferences, with growing ranks of independent swingers; demographics in flux, with swelling numbers of Asian-Americans and Latinos; and pendulous politics, with Republicans having dominated the 1990s and Democrats thriving in the 2000s. When Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee in forty-four years to carry the state, he did it with 53 percent of the vote–same as the country. So it’s no wonder that everybody is looking to Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial contest as a Middle American barometer for 2010. And the needle is pointing tentatively rightward.

With the president’s approval ratings having plunged twenty points since January in this fiscally conservative state, and with outgoing Democratic Governor Tim Kaine’s popularity sagging beneath the weight of budgetary woes, Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds has clawed uphill all the way against telegenic Republican Bob McDonnell. An ex-military graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, McDonnell has run a lavishly funded campaign that could be a template–slick, deceptive and wickedly effective–for a GOP revival in other purple states.

Virginians have long prided themselves on being allergic to ideologues. Up against a moderate like Deeds, a longtime state legislator, a Christian-right champion like McDonnell is left with just one option: all-out obfuscation. This is the guy, after all, who in 1989 wrote a now-infamous master’s thesis at Regent–intended as a governing playbook for Republicans–that called working women “detrimental” to the family; demanded that government “restrain, punish, and deter” homosexuality; and ridiculed “conventional folklore about the separation of church and state.” It wasn’t just talk: in the Statehouse and the AG’s office, McDonnell’s sole mission was enacting the agenda he outlined in that thesis. He introduced thirty-five measures to restrict abortion rights. He championed (to little avail) “covenant marriage,” school vouchers and tax policies designed to bolster his view of the traditional family. The list goes on. But in this campaign, McDonnell has recast himself as a problem-solving, Chamber of Commerce-style Republican obsessed with jobs and transportation–the most pressing issues, respectively, in economically strapped Southern Virginia and traffic-choked Northern Virginia. McDonnell speaks no evil of Obama. But he has skillfully deployed national controversies to help distract voters’ attention from his pre-modern social views.

Deeds, who’s trailed steadily by single digits all fall, knows the fix he’s in. “Whenever there’s a new administration and they’re trying new things, they’re gonna ruffle some feathers,” he told me in mid-September, bumping toward another campaign event. “That’s why the other guy in the race is doing the best he can to focus the election on federal issues. So we fight over the nuances of cap-and-trade and the Employee Free Choice Act instead of what’s going on in Virginia.” That, combined with Obama’s droopy poll numbers, has landed Deeds in a Catch-22 likely to ensnare many a Democrat in 2010. “If I’m real critical of the president, I’ll undercut the Democratic base,” Deeds says. “And if I avoid the question and say it’s moot, they’ll say these issues are important and why won’t you talk about them?”

The quandary had been spotlighted a few days earlier, at the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce debate, when the moderator asked whether Deeds considered himself an “Obama Democrat.” After some hemming and hawing, the candidate replied, “I’m a Creigh Deeds Democrat.” Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what that means. Many progressives have been wary of his legislative record, which often reflected the conservatism of his rural roots. Until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, he was an ardent opponent of gun control. Deeds also raised liberal hackles by voting for a 2006 referendum denying marriage rights to gay couples. More damaging, Deeds has failed to articulate a resonant message on kitchen-table issues, allowing McDonnell to keep the debate focused on the Democrat’s support for “job-killing” cap-and-trade and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Even with Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Biden stumping for Deeds, Virginia Democrats badly need firing up, so soon after the unprecedented grassroots war they waged in 2008, when they helped register and turn out a whopping half-million new voters. One poll this fall showed that only 60 percent of the black voters who keyed Obama’s victory are likely to show up for Deeds. Republicans, on the other hand, are pumped. McDonnell’s slick trick–quietly sticking to his fundamentalist views while chanting the mantras of “jobs” and “free enterprise”–has given both factions of his party plenty to get juiced about.

It’s easy to exaggerate the symbolic import of this race. But if Deeds were to eke out a victory through a last-minute surge, it would signify that Democrats have achieved a durable measure of dominance in this most middling of states. With the likelier result, a McDonnell win, the message would be less emphatic but still resonant: a Republican who doesn’t come off like a tea-party wing nut or a Rick Santorum theocrat can still win in Purple America. And the next name you’d hear touted loudly as a presidential prospect in 2012 would surely be that of a blue-eyed, blond-haired, silver-tongued devil named McDonnell.