MCDONNELL’S THESIS IN VIRGINIA…. For most of the year, Democrats in Virginia have hoped to characterize former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful, as far more extreme in his ideology than he lets on. Dems haven’t had much luck, though, and McDonnell leads in all available polls.

With about two months left until Election Day, the Democrats’ efforts just got a little easier.

At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master’s thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as “detrimental” to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” He described as “illogical” a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples. […]

In his run for governor, McDonnell, 55, makes little mention of his conservative beliefs and has said throughout his campaign that he should be judged by what he has done in office, including efforts to lower taxes, stiffen criminal penalties and reform mental health laws. He reiterated that position Saturday in a statement responding to questions about his thesis.

McDonnell’s master’s thesis ran 93 pages, and was part of his post-grad work at Regent University — an evangelical school in Virginia created by radical televangelist Pat Robertson. The paper went on to call for undermining the concept of church-state separation, public funding for private schools, and protections for parents who spank their children.

Now, in general, I’m inclined to cut candidates quite a bit of slack on the work they did as students. I don’t doubt that when I was in grad school at age 22, I wrote some papers that I’d disagree with now, and I wouldn’t want it to be held against me. McDonnell wrote some pretty radical stuff, but it was 20 years ago.

But the circumstances with McDonnell are a little different. For one thing, he was 34 when he wrote, among other things, that working women and feminists are “detrimental” to American families. It’s harder to dismiss bizarre ideas as a youthful flight of fancy when the author is 34 years old.

More importantly, though, this was not just an academic exercise for a student at a TV preacher’s college. McDonnell’s thesis included a 15-point action plan he wanted to see Republicans follow. Soon after, McDonnell was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he “pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper.”

Responding to questions about the thesis, McDonnell said his “views on many issues have changed” as he’s “gotten older.” He added that his criticism of women in the workplace “does not reflect my views.”

That’s the right response, I suppose, but given how offensive the paper was, it may require some further explanation. As for the larger campaign dynamic, Dems have been waiting for a chance to characterize McDonnell as part of the Robertson/Falwell wing of the GOP. Watch to see how aggressively they take advantage of this opportunity.

Postscript: By the way, did Democratic opposition researchers dig up this dirt on McDonnell? Nope — the WaPo learned about the thesis when McDonnell brought it up during a recent interview.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.