Creigh Deeds has been a disappointment as the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia.

While he was preferable to one of his Democratic primary foes — veteran party bagman Terry McAuliffe — Deeds lacked the ideas, the personality and the drive of the third candidate in that race, Brian Moran.

But Moran and McAuliffe beat each other up, split votes among key constituencies and assured a Deeds victory.

Since securing the nomination, Deeds has stumbled more than he has soared in one of 2009’s two off-year gubernatorial contests. His unfocused campaign has stirred a fierce internal — and sometimes external — debate among Democratic strategiests who says Deeds has got to get his act together.

The contest is a big deal beyond Virginia. The results — like those from the other off-year state, New Jersey — will be read for indications of the popular appeal of the parties and of the presidency of Barack Obama. That may not be fair, let alone accurate, but everyone is looking for measures of the administration’s strength, especially in states where the Democratic president scored breakthrough wins in 2008.

So far this fall, Deeds has been failing the test.

With the Virginia vote barely two weeks away, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee trails by seven to nine points in the polls.

There are those who trace Deeds’ troubles to the waning of Barack Obama’s appeal in Virginia and, no doubt, Obama has lost some of the luster that made him the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state in decades.

But Obama remains popular in northern Virginia.

Deeds, on the other hand, is having trouble exciting Democrats in the vote rich suburbs of Washington, DC, that should be his base in the race with Republican Robert McDonnell.

McDonnell, a former legislator and state attorney general, is an agile campaigner and he has, for the most part, succeeded in projecting a moderate image in this year’s campaign. That’s helped the Republican attract support in areas where recent Republican nominees have been rejected — and where Democratic gubernatorial, senate and presidential candidates have in recent years built the majorities that have moved the once very-conservative and quite-Republican state of Virginia into the “swing state” column.

But McDonnell is no moderate.

And The Washington Post, in a odd-but-potentially-effective endorsement of Deeds, drives the point home with a directness rarely seen these days in newspaper declarations.

The Post, the DC-based “hometown newspaper” of the northern Virginia suburbs that Deeds must win big to be competitive, is blunt about the Democrat’s flaws. “Mr. Deeds has been broadly criticized, not least by stalwarts of his own party, for putting too heavy an emphasis on negative ads about Mr. McDonnell and failing to make an affirmative case for himself,” the paper notes in its Sunday editions.

“Mr. Deeds, lagging in the polls, lacks Mr. McDonnell’s knack for crisp articulation,” the Post observes. “But,” the editors add, “if he has not always been the most adroit advocate for astute policies, that is preferable to Mr. McDonnell’s silver-tongued embrace of ideas that would mire Virginia in a traffic-clogged, backward-looking past. Virginians should not confuse Mr. McDonnell’s adept oratory for wisdom, nor Mr. Deeds’ plain speech for indirection. In fact, it is Mr. Deeds whose ideas hold the promise of a prosperous future.”

The Post portrays Deeds as an honest player who is willing to propose bold if potentially unpopular responses to transportation, education and economic challenges. But by any reasonable measure the paper’s declaration — which was to be expected but which comes at a point when Deeds needs the boost — is less a classic endorsement than a warning about what would happen it Deeds loses to McDonnell.

As such, the Post’s editorial provides a devastating confirmation of the roughest attacks on the Republican nominee:

As for Mr. McDonnell, he deserves credit for having run a disciplined, focused, policy-oriented campaign. As a candidate, a statewide official and a lawmaker, he has maintained a civil, personable manner. His intellectual agility, even temper and facility with the grit of policy have inspired the respect of colleagues, staffers and rivals. He is a dexterous politician.

Our differences with him are on questions of policy. The clamor surrounding his graduate dissertation from 1989, in which he disparaged working women, homosexuals, “fornicators” and others of whom he disapproved, has tended to obscure rather than illuminate fair questions about the sort of governor he would make. Based on his 14-year record as a lawmaker — a record dominated by his focus on incendiary wedge issues — we worry that Mr. McDonnell’s Virginia would be one where abortion rights would be curtailed; where homosexuals would be treated as second-class citizens; where information about birth control would be hidden; and where the line between church and state could get awfully porous. That is a prescription for yesterday’s Virginia, not tomorrow’s.

An intellectually agile “dexterous politician” who happens to be a sexist homophobe who would bend the policies of the state toward theocracy? Yikes! The Post is essentially saying that McDonnell is a smart theocrat.

So the Virginia race is framed as a contest between a disappointing candidate and a dangerous candidate.

That’s not the way politicians like to frame things. They like to deal in absolutes — good guys versus bad guys. But the Post’s intervention, with its realistic assessment of the contest, may offer the best hope left for Deeds to make a connection with the Democrats and especially the moderate independents who have tipped Virginia to the Democrats in recent years — but with whom this year’s Democrat has yet to close the deal.