CHESTER, Va. — The candidate arrived more than 90 minutes late, pulling into John Tyler Community College, where an orange cone and a security guard saved a space in a largely empty parking lot.
“Wow! Long ride,” said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, trailed by two aides as he complained about traffic on Interstate 95 while walking to a classroom where a table was set with 14 information folders in front of 14 seats.
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.
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.
Always, he introduces himself as “Terry McAuliffe.” Only occasionally, he adds, “I’m running for governor.”
At Virginia Tech, he walked past construction workers, saying only, “Hey, guys.” At the data center, as executives led him on a tour, he paused in a lounge, where a man was eating.
“How’s lunch?” McAuliffe asked.
“Good,” the man replied mid-bite.
“Good,” McAuliffe said, walking on.
In recent weeks, Cuccinelli has intensified the frequency of his appearances, hosting town hall meetings such as one in Fredericksburg that drew more than 100 people, all of whom passed rows of campaign signs as they arrived.
Almost every day, Republicans find a way to portray McAuliffe as an opportunist who inflates his accomplishments, as a Washington insider posing as a Virginian (even as he has lived in Fairfax County for more than 20 years).
While McAuliffe’s team unleashes attacks of its own, the candidate largely sticks to his tours, repeating lines such as, “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, having started my first business at 14 years old.”
Sometimes he makes pronouncements. “We’ve got to take Virginia to the next level,” he said in Charlottesville after touring a medical technology firm.
“We need to embrace science,” he said. “We need to embrace technology and innovation.”
At times, his words tumble out in bursts, as they did at another point in Charlottesville when he said he wanted to “bring a little more entrepreneurial spirit” to Virginia. Then he talked of cutting waste at community colleges.
“We need a little more entrepreneurial, little more efficiencies,” McAuliffe said.
Then, abruptly, he added: “And you clearly don’t want a political witch hunt from the attorney general.”
The candidate was alluding to a lawsuit Cuccinelli filed against a climate scientist, Michael Mann, who at that moment was standing next to McAuliffe. He and Mann had just embarked on what the campaign touted as “Science Week,” intended to highlight “the need for Virginia’s next governor to support the Commonwealth’s researchers and innovators in order to keep Virginia competitive in the 21st Century.”
Their itinerary included Virginia Tech, where McAuliffe met an entrepreneur manufacturing a driverless car.
“Love it!” McAuliffe said.
The political benefits of such stops may not seem obvious. But they become clearer with the ensuing headline in the Roanoke Times: “Gubernatorial Hopeful McAuliffe’s Campaign Tours Virginia Tech.”
To spread the news of his tours, the campaign tweets photos of McAuliffe listening to administrators and executives, notebook in hand. There also was a photo of him without the notebook, taken at “Mama Possums,” a fast-food joint in Danville, featuring the candidate about to bite into a hot dog at a table where he sat alone.
A few days later, McAuliffe found thousands of potential voters at the July 4 parade in Dale City.
It was a chance to look and sound like a politician running for office.
In the extreme heat, McAuliffe jogged and sometimes galloped the two-mile route in hiking boots, sweat stains spreading from the knees of his khakis to his shirt collar. More sweat rolled off his nose.
“I need your vote,” McAuliffe told a man in a lawn chair, crouching to get close. His aide said, “We gotta go,” waving him to keep up with a flock of campaign workers, one shouting, “He’s going be the greatest governor in history!”
“Oh, wow!” McAuliffe yelped after slapping hands with a boy, and then he was galloping again, all the way to the end, where he asked, “Are there any hands left to shake?”
Four days after the parade, McAuliffe was back on tour, visiting Inova Alexandria Hospital to “discuss policies that will make Virginia’s health-care system more efficient,” as his team advertised.
Christine Candio, Inova’s chief executive, greeted him at the entrance, saying, “As you know, health care is in a sea of change.”
“You bet,” McAuliffe said, taking out his notebook as she recited a list of challenges, including rising costs.
“I’m all for the Medicaid expansion, just so you know,” McAuliffe said.
“Thank you for that,” Candio replied, leading him to a surgical unit, where the director, Valerie Murphy, told him, “This unit is wonderful.”
“I love someone who’s passionate about their job,” McAuliffe said.
After showing him a patient’s room and learning that Inova encourages families to help with post-surgical care, McAuliffe asked: “If you were governor, is there one thing you’d change?”
“Pay nurses more,” Murphy said. “I really think pushing the families to be more involved is something we have to do.”
“Good,” McAuliffe said. “Well, it’s sure working here.”
A couple of hours later, after he was gone, his aides sent out his health-care platform, an eight-page document entitled “A Healthier, Stronger Virginia.”
Four days later, McAuliffe visited RagingWire, a data-center firm that recently opened a headquarters in Ashburn.
“Why did you decide to move to Virginia?’’ McAuliffe asked RagingWire’s executives, who greeted him in the lobby.
“So, what keeps you up at night?” he asked.
The executives led McAuliffe through their “mechanical corridor” and into their conference room, through their lounges and to a construction site, where a worker gave the candidate a hard hat. His press spokesman took photos.
At the tour’s conclusion, a reporter asked McAuliffe about the campaign.
“Listen,” he said, “we’re excited. We’re out every day from morning till night seven days a week, talking jobs, economic development.”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re open and welcoming and offering the best business environment,” he said.
“We’ve got to stay sharp. We’ve got to stay on our game.”
Virginia has slipped to No. 5 on CNBC’s list of top states to conduct business, he warned. “I get out of bed as governor thinking, ‘How can we be ‘one’?”
Before departing, McAuliffe asked to test the company’s security system, a device at the entrance that identifies employees by scanning their eyes.
“Can I put my eyeballs up here?” McAuliffe asked, taking his position in front of the machine.
A robotic voice answered: “Sorry. We cannot confirm your identity.”