March 15, 2013

“Fantastic,” says Terry McAuliffe as he listens to officials at the Culpeper, Va., campus of Germanna Community College talk about projects ranging from designing machine controls to a weight-loss competition. The tall, curly-haired McLean businessman — a Democrat who wants to be Virginia’s next governor — walks through a campus building while tossing out a barrage of questions and furiously taking notes. “I’m going to help with you with that, Ben,” he says to one teacher. “These community colleges are just jewels,” he remarks to another.

The visit to the Germanna campus, on which I tagged along in February, is part of McAuliffe’s effort to cast himself as a moderate jobs creator in a head-to-head campaign against firebrand Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. The off-year race is already attracting national attention as Republicans seek to turn the page from their drubbing in the 2012 elections. The media are watching closely to see how Cuccinelli will play his hand — how much will he tone down the rhetoric that’s made him a star on the right? — and a flood of out-of-state money is expected to flow to both candidates.

“My focus is all on economic development,” McAuliffe says flatly. “It’s job-creation, and that’s why I am touring every community college in Virginia. That is my focus — to bring mainstream, pro-business ideas. My opponent’s more into a social, ideological agenda.”

This bread-and-butter strategy is as obvious as it is essential. Early polls show the two candidates running neck and neck, but Cuccinelli has assets that could give him an edge: experience in state government and a better-known name. News this week that Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling doesn’t have the cash to mount an independent bid only puts more pressure on McAuliffe to reach beyond the safely anti-Cuccinelli, Democratic base. University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato and his colleagues noted that Bolling’s decision leaves the state with “two deeply flawed candidates” who “have limited positive appeal.”

McAuliffe indeed has baggage to overcome. In decisively losing the Democratic primary for governor in 2009 to underwhelming state Sen. Creigh Deeds, he was unable to shake off an image as a hard-charging Democratic Party operative and former fundraiser for Bill Clinton. More recently, the Connecticut-born banker-turned-entrepreneur has been criticized for locating a hybrid-car factory in Mississippi instead of Virginia — a story line that offers an obvious counterattack to his Virginia-jobs-first appeal.

McAuliffe clearly will have to contend again with accusations that he is a carpetbagger out of touch with Virginia’s problems. The Cuccinelli campaign played that card this month when it ridiculed McAuliffe for urging in a tweet from Florida that Virginia residents take care as snow approached. McAuliffe’s answer is to stress his Old Dominion ties: “My wife and I have lived in the same home in Northern Virginia for 21 years,” he says. “We have five children. I want our children to stay here and have jobs.”

This outsider problem may actually be less than meets the eye. Plenty of successful Virginia politicians did not grow up in the Old Dominion. One is none other than hugely popular Democrat Mark Warner, an Indiana-born entrepreneur who ran Douglas Wilder’s 1989 campaign for governor before becoming a successful governor himself and then a U.S. senator.

Warner’s brand of tech-savvy centrism clearly has not been lost on McAuliffe. As he steps through classrooms at Germanna, he regularly brings up Warner’s name. He also praises fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, another former governor who became a U.S. senator, and even Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, as pro-business leaders. In contrast with Cuccinelli, McAuliffe backs McDonnell’s breakthrough with the General Assembly that produced the first real money for roads since 1986. “I’ve got to give Gov. McDonnell credit for keeping the discussion going,” he says.

The big question is whether identifying with practical politicians such as McDonnell will be enough to distance independents and moderate Republican voters — who might be turned off by McAuliffe’s deep history with the Democratic Party — from Cuccinelli and the tea party movement that stands with him.

Cuccinelli may be wondering the same thing. Lately, he seems to be avoiding inflammatory rhetoric (there was hardly a reference to gays, abortion or any other social flashpoint to be found in his recent book about constitutional federalism). He might be wise to stick to that approach. McAuliffe is clearly planning to pounce if Cuccinelli goes rogue.

“I always say the most important family value you can have is a job,” McAuliffe says at the end of his community college tour. “There’s a real difference between us, and we can’t be sending out signals with a social-ideological agenda that says that people aren’t wanted. We can’t divide people. We’ve got to unite them.”

The writer blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion and is a participant in The Post’s Local Blog Network.