April 6, 2013

IS TERRY MCAULIFFE, the one-time Democratic Party major-domo who was crushed in his party’s primary for governor of Virginia four years ago, a better candidate this year than he was in 2009? Maligned then as a brash carpetbagger, Mr. McAuliffe has spent practically every day since his defeat paying dues, making amends and cultivating allies across the state at fish fries, neighborhood meetings and coal mines — more than 2,600 events, by his count. His efforts paid off last week when he was certified as the Democratic nominee for governor; he’ll face Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the presumptive Republican nominee, in November.

Mr. McAuliffe is casting Mr. Cuccinelli, a darling of the tea party, as an extremist outside the mainstream of Virginia, which has voted twice for President Obama. Indeed it seems unlikely that Mr. Cuccinelli could reassure voters that he would govern from the center, even if he wanted to adopt that strategy — successful four years ago for Republican Robert F. McDonnell (R).

But attacking his opponent won’t be a sufficient strategy for Mr. McAuliffe. He faces the challenge of motivating Obama supporters in a way the Democratic loser failed to do four years ago, while reassuring centrist voters that he will govern in the pragmatic mold of Mr. McDonnell and his two Democratic predecessors, U.S. senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. In addition, with Virginia having adopted a transportation plan — with Mr. McAuliffe’s strong support and over Mr. Cuccinelli’s objections — Mr. McAuliffe needs a program that moves beyond that long-festering challenge.

Sensibly, in the early going he is stressing job creation and economic development in an era when federal largesse may be declining. He rightly emphasizes improved infrastructure, a robust community college system and quality pre-K education as magnets for new businesses and tools to prepare people for work. He dislikes granting the state a role in grading schools or taking over failing schools — two of Mr. McDonnell’s initiatives — while still professing to want to hold schools accountable to parents and taxpayers. How he would do so is a question he will need to answer in the coming months.

A challenge for all governors focused on economic development is managing the cut-throat competition with other states to attract job-creating businesses. According to a recent state report, Virginia has spent more than $700 million over the last decade in incentive grants and other lures to corporations. But there is no evidence the money had a major effect in convincing firms to relocate in Virginia; some businesses said outright it was not decisive. So as he formulates job-creating strategies, Mr. McAuliffe should be wary of promises to throw money at corporations considering a move to Virginia, which in any event can be unfair to firms already in the state.