McAuliffe's Bid Challenges Assumptions in Va. Politics

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

As Terry McAuliffe tours the state days after launching his campaign for governor, one question looms large for the man with the big personality, the big dollars and the big-name political team at his side: Is Virginia ready for this guy?

McAuliffe, 51, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the close friend of the Clintons, the preternatural fundraiser for national Democratic candidates, carries credentials that would have been baggage just a few years ago in a run for governor in the Old Dominion. But he has calculated that none of it precludes him from winning the executive mansion today in ever-bluer Virginia. In the process, he has turned the governor's race on its head.

At the core of McAuliffe's campaign is the presumption that he can place firmly in the past several long-standing rules about Virginia politics: that successful candidates must have deep roots in Virginia, that they must spend years cultivating support in local and state party organizations and that, if they are Democrats, they must stay connected with conservative-minded Virginians by keeping their distance from the national party.

"He has changed the entire dynamic of the race," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's not absolutely clear what the outcome will be here. McAuliffe has the kind of political and media savvy that comes from being on the national stage for a long time. He has, obviously, prodigious fundraising skills. But we don't know how a national figure will play in a race for governor. That is the one real uncertainty."

Despite that, McAuliffe's two-month "listening tour" on his way to last Wednesday's formal announcement has sent shudders through state politics. First is his money: He has the ability and contacts to raise tens of millions of dollars for a statewide campaign. And next is the sheer size of his personality, which causes him to careen in conversation from bringing broadband to rural areas to burning chicken poop for fuel to using his friendships with major CEOs (whom he gladly lists) to make it all happen.

"I loooove education!" McAuliffe bellowed at a recent Fairfax County Democratic Committee breakfast, speaking to a local activist about public schools -- and lowering his face into the voice recorder of a nearby reporter to be sure the words were captured. As a small crowd of curious Democrats gathered, the two men McAuliffe faces in the Democratic primary, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of rural Bath County and former state delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, watched from across the room.

To varying degrees, McAuliffe's competitors are running their races by the old set of rules, which have worked for generations. Deeds, a Plato-quoting state senator from a tiny Blue Ridge community on the West Virginia border, is a conservative Democrat, former prosecutor and friend of the National Rifle Association whose strongest appeal might be in rural Virginia. But Deeds has proven himself in a statewide campaign, coming within 400 votes of winning the attorney general's race in 2005.

Moran, a 13-year state delegate, former prosecutor and the brother of U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), also has locked up support from dozens of state and local Democratic Party officials, including most elected leaders in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The day before McAuliffe's statewide swing began, Moran staged an event in Arlington, surrounded by local leaders of what he called the "bluest of counties," to remind the public of the strength of his support among local Democratic officials.

Even Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, is assuming that McAuliffe's national profile is a weakness to be exploited. McDonnell is a former state lawmaker from Virginia Beach and longtime fixture in the conservative wing of the state GOP. His campaign manager, Phil Cox, likes to call the potential general-election opponent "Chairman McAuliffe" to emphasize his connection to the national party.

"Virginia has a long history of electing people who have served in elected positions in the community for a long time," said Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who is supporting Moran. "They don't look kindly on people who come in from Washington or other areas and waltz in and think they're going to run for the top spot in the commonwealth."

Many longtime Democratic activists snicker at McAuliffe's recent gaffe in Prince William County, where he mistakenly referred to the research institutions and universities "we have here in Florida." Some have tartly remarked that neither Moran nor Deeds needs a "listening tour" to understand the issues important to Virginia. About 200 supporters gave Moran a two-minute standing ovation at a recent evening meeting of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, an unsubtle rebuke of McAuliffe's entrance into the race.

"Ask Terry to explain Dillon Rule!" hissed Eileen Manning, a prominent Fairfax Democrat who is supporting Moran, suggesting that McAuliffe hasn't toiled long enough in Virginia's political fields and that his lack of familiarity with a basic statutory treatise would prove the point. But McAuliffe was ready.

"No one has fought as hard as I have for this party," McAuliffe retorted -- after recounting, in detail, his deep knowledge of the 19th-century Iowa judge, John Forrest Dillon.

In other words, McAuliffe is serious about this. And as a result, the competition is taking him very seriously. Moran, who would have been barred as a member of the House of Delegates from raising money during the upcoming legislative session, left his seat last month to continue seeking contributions to compete with McAuliffe's likely millions. Deeds now faces two opponents in the June primary from Northern Virginia, where sheer population has increasing influence on statewide political contests. His supporters say there is potential advantage in the splitting of Northern Virginia's votes between McAuliffe and Moran. But the candidate's conservative profile is less clearly an asset against McAuliffe and Moran in a state that just elected Barack Obama (D) by a six-point margin.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, said he believes Virginia will choose the candidate with the best ideas, regardless of where they're from or whether they've been on the national stage.

"No one has a right to be anointed governor just because they've been wanting it for a long time," he said in a recent interview, the flatness of his vowels an ever-present reminder of his upbringing in Syracuse, N.Y., and his outsider status, even though he has lived in McLean for 17 years.

McAuliffe is also ready to build his own organization and use his profile and money to take his message directly to voters, particularly Democrat-leaning newcomers who won't view his national profile as a liability. He has hired a company of political pros from local and national stages, and he has reached out to state party leaders by pledging to raise money to help Democrats recapture the House of Delegates.

"Terry's a national figure, there's no way around it," said James Turpin, a McAuliffe supporter and the state Democratic Party's vice chairman for finance. "But one of the strengths he brings is the technology and techniques to raise money that were honed on a national stage.

No matter what the outcome, there's little question that McAuliffe's arrival on the scene has forced Moran, Deeds and McDonnell to retool their campaigns.

"Terry's always been the type of person who, when he puts his mind to something, he tends to succeed," said George Burke, a Fairfax activist supporting Moran. "And he's in this in earnest. It's certainly going to be a spirited election."

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