Six educators were waiting. Then five, as the college’s president said he had a doctor’s appointment. McAuliffe pulled out a notebook and a ballpoint pen.
“I’ve got notebooks and notebooks with great ideas,” he told the group. They smiled and nodded. He clicked the pen. He was ready to take notes.
During his years as a fundraising star for the Democratic Party, McAuliffe acquired a reputation as a partisan cheerleader of boundless volume, a showman who once wrestled an alligator to lure a $15,000 campaign donation.
Now, in his bid to become Virginia’s next governor, McAuliffe is the image of the low-key pragmatist, a business executive focused on creating jobs and expanding the economy.
Since late April, just before his campaign’s official start, McAuliffe’s public itinerary — the one to which he invites news organizations — has included tours of nine community colleges, two universities, one hospital, one recycling plant, one distillery and one Metro station.
As advertised, the tours allow McAuliffe to converse with medical professionals, academics and business owners about issues such as transportation, health care and job training.
Yet, in the middle of a fiercely contested race, one watched by Republicans and Democrats nationwide, the most striking feature at many of McAuliffe’s appearances may be the almost studied absence of a campaign.
No crowds gathered when he toured a data center in Ashburn or a bookstore in Winchester. There were no campaign workers posting signs reading “McAuliffe for Governor.”
In fact, there were no signs at all.
Just small audiences, sometimes numbering fewer than half a dozen, and the candidate jotting in his notebook, asking questions instead of delivering stump speeches and rarely uttering the name of his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli II.
“How many welding bays here?” McAuliffe asked a professor at John Tyler Community College.
“Where do you hope to be in 10 years?” he asked an executive in Blacksburg.
“If you were governor for a day, what would you change?” he asked (in various ways) everywhere.
If the events presented McAuliffe as a diligent student of issues confronting Virginia, they also could make him seem like a head-swiveling tourist in the state he hopes to lead, with a “Visitor’s Pass” sometimes clipped to his suit jacket.
“Oh boy!” he said, walking into a classroom at John Tyler.
“Wow!” he said as Virginia Tech’s president led him past the football stadium; “Fantastic!” as he saw the university’s new performing arts center.
“It’s like the Ritz-Carlton or something,” he said at a hospital in Alexandria after noticing, at the foot of a bed, a towel folded in the shape of a swan.