As the pugnacious leader of the Democratic Party a decade ago, Terry McAuliffe was well known as a searing critic of the Republican Party. Now, as the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, McAuliffe wants voters to see him as a candidate eager to work with both parties.
In recent weeks, McAuliffe has trumpeted a cluster of endorsements from Republican business owners and former lawmakers, hoping to send a message that unlike opponent Ken Cuccinelli II, the GOP nominee, he is the candidate for all Virginians — not just Democrats.
Yet McAuliffe’s bipartisan pitch belies the warrior he was as President Bill Clinton’s principal fundraiser and as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a period when he chided Republicans for perpetuating “a culture of corruption and incompetence.”
President George W. Bush, by McAuliffe’s rendering, was a “disaster” whose administration “failed America on every single issue” and made Richard Nixon’s White House look “open, honest and trustworthy.”
At another point, McAuliffe recounted on C-SPAN that his father died before Bush took office because “he could not go into a new year knowing that a Republican was actually moving into the White House.”
Already a veteran of one losing gubernatorial campaign in the commonwealth and still relatively unknown to many Virginians, McAuliffe is seeking to assemble a spectrum of support, courting business leaders, women and younger voters.
With polls showing a close race to succeed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), McAuliffe is aiming to capitalize on what Democrats believe is a breach between the GOP’s ticket and moderate Republicans who may regard Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson, the candidate for lieutenant governor, as too conservative on social issues.
“Republicans run from Cuccinelli/Jackson Ticket,” read the subject line of the e-mail McAuliffe’s campaign spokesman sent to reporters recently. “Business leaders and Mainstream Republicans Siding with Terry McAuliffe,” read another.
“You could only do it against Cuccinelli, who’s so easy to caricature,” said Ron Rappaport, a political science professor at the College of William and Mary. “I don’t think this would work against McDonnell, whom Republicans like and can bond with. With Cuccinelli, there’s a pause, and that gives McAuliffe an opportunity.”
McAuliffe is following a formula previously embraced by former governors Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, Democrats who cast themselves as non-ideological executives. McDonnell, viewed as a social conservative, emphasized economic issues when he ran for governor.
“If you look at the last 10 years, the candidate who has done a better job of demonstrating bipartisanship, the one who has done a better job of communicating a results-first message, is the candidate who won,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist who advised Warner and Kaine.
“In each one of those cases — Warner, Kaine, McDonnell — the winner is the one who comes off looking less ideological,” he said. “The majority of Virginians are non-ideological. Even when they subscribe to a particular ideology, they don’t want it getting in way of the trains running on time.”
In a campaign still in its early stages, the effect of McAuliffe’s attempt to cast himself as non-ideological is unclear. Yet McAuliffe’s strategy is not without risks, said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst.
“He was essentially the partisan-in-chief, and now he’s defining himself as the voice of Virginia’s mainstream,” Holsworth said, adding that that evolution exposes McAuliffe to questions: “What does he believe in, and what does he care about?”
“Part of the argument against him is that he doesn’t have a strong core belief and that it’s all about likability,” Holsworth said. “Cuccinelli tries to be the opposite. He has principles. You may not like them, but you know what they are. It’s authenticity versus inauthenticity.”
Still, the potential gains could outweigh the risks for McAuliffe when both candidates are seeking to attract the state’s large numbers of moderate and independent voters.
Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, has sought to shift to the center by focusing on economic issues and not raising social issues. His views on gay rights and abortion have prompted Republicans — including his rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — to describe this year’s GOP ticket as “extreme.”
Asked Wednesday at a campaign event about McAuliffe’s bipartisan appeal, Cuccinelli said: “Are you kidding me? Look at him — he has been a professional partisan Democrat for over 30 years.”
“If you want to get a meaningful policy through the General Assembly, I’m the only one with a shot at it,” Cuccinelli said, referring to his years as a state senator and attorney general. “I am far more bipartisan than Terry McAuliffe will ever be.”
Josh Schwerin, McAuliffe’s spokesman, said in an e-mail: “Republicans are crossing over to endorse Terry for the exact same reasons Democrats are united behind him. He’s focused on expanding economic opportunity.”
McAuliffe, casting himself as a pragmatic businessman willing to rise above the partisan fray, released a TV ad decrying anyone promoting a “divisive, ideological agenda” and advised against “putting up walls around Virginia.”
In another ad, McAuliffe recounted how he had lobbied Democratic state lawmakers to support McDonnell’s transportation bill. “This is too important a time for partisan politics,” the narrator says.
At the same time, McAuliffe sought to celebrate endorsements from an array of Virginia Republicans. In a number of cases, Cuccinelli’s campaign has questioned the significance. Although former governor Linwood Holton, who served from 1970 to 1974, is a Republican, he has a history of endorsing Democrats, including Warner and Kaine, who is his son-in-law.
McAuliffe’s past criticisms of Republicans are readily accessible in his memoir, “What a Party!” and from his numerous appearances over the years on Sunday morning talk shows.
The “politics of personal hate are all they have,” McAuliffe wrote of the Republicans in his book, recalling their criticism of Clinton. At another point, he wrote: “There were Republican Presidents who carried on affairs that were well known in Washington,” although he declined to “name names here. But everyone in Washington knows exactly whom I’m talking about.”
Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s chief strategist, said McAuliffe remains what he was when he was building his political and business careers as a top Democratic spokesman.
“To now try to convey a message of bipartisanship and that he’s capable of working across party lines is laughable,” LaCivita said. “The first thing people spot in politicians are frauds, and Terry McAuliffe is a quintessential fraud.”
Schwerin, McAuliffe’s spokesman, countered that Cuccinelli’s campaign is “lashing out” because the Republican “is having a difficult time earning strong support within his own party.”
Democrats say McAuliffe’s previous roles in the Democratic Party required him to serve as a partisan spokesman. As governor, McAuliffe’s allies say, he knows he would need to work with Republicans.
“He’s in a totally different role, and he realizes that if you’re going to succeed, you have to get along with everyone,” state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “And Terry has the personality to do that.”
Reinvention and rebranding are rites of American politics, as Richard Nixon demonstrated when, before the 1968 New Hampshire primary, his presidential campaign ran an advertisement asking, “Is there a ‘new Nixon?’ ” When George H.W. Bush spoke of a “kinder and gentler nation,” he could have been referring to himself.
In McAuliffe’s case, the roles he has adopted are not necessarily in conflict, Rappaport said. “Even though McAuliffe was the Democrats’ attack dog, he wasn’t an ideologue. You don’t identify him with the left wing of the Democratic Party. He’s making a stylistic claim more than an ideological claim.”
By calling attention to his Republican support and portraying himself as non-ideological, McAuliffe risks alienating progressives, some of whom he has already irked by switching his position to favor offshore drilling.
But Democrats say McAuliffe remains safe as long as he does not alter his positions on social issues. His best ammunition may be calling attention to what they describe as the extreme views espoused by Cuccinelli and Jackson.
“If progressive voters can’t get motivated to get off their butts and to the polls, then I give up,” said Lowell Feld, a blogger for the liberal Web site “Blue Virginia.” “We might as well fold up the Democratic Party.”