By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
RICHMOND, Dec. 2 -- While three of the four men vying to be Virginia's next governor talked up their lengthy résumés in state government Tuesday, newcomer Terry McAuliffe pitched himself as a Richmond outsider who could change government.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and Del. Brian J. Moran, both Democrats, and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, all have years of experience on Capitol Square. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, has lived in McLean for two decades but has had little involvement in state government or politics.
"I think there is an opportunity for someone who has not been in Richmond who can come in with some new ideas," McAuliffe said.
The four likely candidates shared the stage for the first time at a debate Tuesday, unofficially launching a yearlong campaign for the state's top job by answering questions from journalists in front of a packed room in downtown Richmond.
The informal debate centered more on personality and records and less on issues. Most of the attention landed on McAuliffe, a nationally known political celebrity who calls Bill and Hillary Clinton close friends and appears on Sunday morning talk shows, but whose views on key state issues are virtually unknown.
McAuliffe came prepared -- both to combat criticism and to exhibit his command of Virginia facts and figures.
He easily rattled off statistics about how many hours Virginians spend stuck in traffic each year, how many poultry farmers work in the state and how many people are unemployed in one of its most financially distressed cities, Martinsville.
McAuliffe, 51, repeatedly mentioned his McLean address, his business credentials and his support for Democrats across the state, including what he described as large donations to the last two governors, Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine.
The candidates, seated at a table and dressed in dark suits, all claimed superior leadership qualities and accomplishments. They clashed occasionally but still referred to each other as "my friend."
Moran pointedly told McAuliffe, a consummate fundraiser who could bring millions of dollars to the race, that "Virginia is not for sale." McAuliffe reminded Moran that he was not the only one who has started a successful business in Virginia. "Do your research," he snapped.
The three Democrats attacked each other more than the lone Republican.
After several years of Republican losses in Virginia, next year's race for governor will help determine whether the GOP can regain its appeal or whether Democrats will continue to have an advantage in statewide elections.
In recent years, Democrats have won two successive gubernatorial elections, both U.S. Senate seats and control of the state Senate. This year, a Democratic presidential nominee carried the state for the first time in more than four decades.
McDonnell, 54, used his time to explain how he is unlike the many Republicans who lost this year.
He said he will appeal to new voters, younger residents and minorities as a moderate who has worked on welfare reform and promoted Internet safety and drunken-driving laws.
"I'm not writing one single vote off here in Virginia,'' he said. "I'm going to run hard while these others guys are fighting for the next six and a half months."
McDonnell's lack of opposition means he will have the spring and summer to raise money, organize his campaign and develop a message heading into next year's general election while Democrats wage an expensive, nasty primary fight.
McDonnell became the Republican nominee for governor last month after no one else filed to run by the deadline. Voters will chose a Democratic nominee June 9 in the party's first contested gubernatorial nomination battle in more than two decades.
Moran (Alexandria) and Deeds (Bath) have been laying the groundwork to run for governor for years. McAuliffe plans to announce a final decision on his candidacy Jan. 7 but has started raising money and hiring a staff.
Deeds, who lost the attorney general's race to McDonnell by fewer than 400 votes, is expected to benefit from a primary against two candidates from Northern Virginia. Deeds and Moran have different personalities and interests, and on Tuesday the two legislators worked to distinguish themselves from each other.
Deeds, 50, stressed his experience as a statewide candidate and said he could win against McDonnell, who he said is too conservative to appeal to residents in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. He accused McDonnell of supporting a sham transportation plan that was built on money that never materialized. (McDonnell countered that Deeds voted for the plan, too, and said half the money is still available.)
Moran, 49, touted his work with Democratic standard-bearers Kaine and Warner and said he would continue what they started. "We've re-branded the Democratic Party in Virginia. We have gone too far to go back," he said.
The candidates agreed that the economy will dominate the race and monopolize the next governor's agenda for at least the first part of his term.
State officials, facing one of the worst financial crises in recent times, must cut $3 billion from the two-year budget. All four also agreed that Virginia would have to continue cutting the budget, but they ruled out raising taxes.
"The worst thing you can do is to tax your way to prosperity,'' McDonnell said. "That's failed in the United States and abroad."
The day-long event, organized by the Associated Press, takes place each year a month before the legislative session. It is one of the few events where McDonnell will appear with all three Democratic candidates.