By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009
RICHMOND -- As one of Bill Clinton's closest friends, Terry McAuliffe was there to console the president on the Truman Balcony of the White House in 1994 when voters delivered a humiliating rejection of the Clinton presidency by turning over control of Congress to the GOP.
McAuliffe was there to tell Bill and Hillary Clinton that they didn't need to worry about mounting legal expenses in 1998. "We'll take care of it," McAuliffe told the president one weekend at Camp David. And when Clinton couldn't get a loan to buy a house in New York state so Hillary could run for the U.S. Senate in 2000, McAuliffe told them: "I've got the money."
Now it is McAuliffe, a Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, who will need help raising money and drawing crowds. And it just so happens, that's exactly the kind of help his friend Bill is particularly suited to provide.
"In the nomination process, I think Bill Clinton is a nuclear weapon for McAuliffe, " said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Roanoke-based political strategist.
First, however, McAuliffe has to determine how to unleash such a powerful political weapon. Democratic strategists say Clinton could be a strong tool in helping McAuliffe win over the same working-class white votes that proved to be a major engine for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign last year. The former president has also traditionally been a powerful motivator in the black community, which is up for grabs in the governor's race.
But Clinton's presence could hamper McAuliffe's efforts to position himself as a candidate more interested in Virginia than national issues. And for a veteran campaigner, he showed a surprising capacity last year for veering off message. Some Democrats say Clinton could mobilize self-described independents, and even some Republicans, to vote against McAuliffe in the open Democratic primary.
Advisers to McAuliffe, who is running against former delegate Brian Moran and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) in the primary June 9, said internal discussions have just begun about how to dispatch Clinton to the campaign trail. Aides and friends of both say that Clinton and McAuliffe talk regularly about strategy and that the two will decide where and how often the former president should venture into Virginia.
"Like any decision that is made on a campaign, it is ultimately going to rest with the candidate," said Delacey Skinner, a McAuliffe spokesman.
But as Hillary Clinton learned last year in her bid for the White House, the former president can be an unstoppable force when in the vicinity of a campaign, and he is making his presence felt in the Virginia governor's race. Recently, he made an unannounced visit to a McAuliffe fundraiser on Park Avenue in New York that raised $350,000 for the campaign. Today, Clinton will headline the Virginia Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, though he has promised not to promote McAuliffe during the speech.
Clinton's early appearance in Virginia is prompting debate about whether he will be an asset or a liability to McAuliffe, who is battling a perception that as a fixture of the Beltway political scene he is out of touch with Virginia's concerns. Even when Clinton was at the height of his national popularity as president, he struggled to connect with Virginia voters.
Clinton failed to carry the state in both of his elections, and Democrats lost two successive governor's races, four congressional seats and more than a dozen legislative seats during his presidency. Last year, Hillary Clinton received 35 percent of the vote in the presidential primary.
"The simple fact of the matter is Virginia has never been crazy about the Clintons," said Larry J. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia. "That is one of McAuliffe's biggest problems. How does he get out from under the Clintons if he is the nominee?"
Still, since he left office, Clinton has grown more popular in parts of Virginia, especially the rural south and west. In the fall, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois dispatched Clinton to campaign for him in the Roanoke and Richmond television markets after polling showed the former president had strong appeal in there.
"He could bring him up to Floyd County, where there are less than 2,000 registered voters, and he will have a crowd of over 1,000 to greet them," Saunders said.
Unknown is what residual bad feelings might remain in the black community, where Clinton's pointed remarks about the eventual president did not sit well. "You have a percentage who say it is a problem and some who say it is not," said Gaylene C. Kanoyton, who is black and chairs the Hampton Democratic Party.
At the very least, Clinton will help McAuliffe raise money. Several Clinton loyalists -- including adviser Paul Begala, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and commentator James Carville -- have donated to McAuliffe's campaign.
"All of us are falling in love with Virginia thanks to Terry," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York who was a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.
It would be unusual for a former president to become heavily engaged in a contested nomination battle. (Unless, of course, it's in support of his spouse.)
The notion troubles Mame Reiley, who remained a Hillary Clinton superdelegate last year despite being under intense pressure to switch. Reiley, who is a senior adviser to Moran, said she would be "terribly disappointed" if the former president "decides to play in this primary."
"There are a lot of Democrats who supported Bill Clinton in good times and in bad," she said. "He owes it to us to acknowledge their loyalty to them and stay out of it."
But Susan Swecker, a Deeds adviser who was also a Hillary Clinton superdelegate last year, said she will understand if the former president decides to campaign for McAuliffe.
"I guess in my heart, I hope he doesn't get involved. But I understand Terry McAuliffe was there for Bill and Hillary Clinton," Swecker said. "He was there for them through thick and thin. How do they not return the favor?"
The former president and the new secretary of state all but consider McAuliffe part of the family. In his book, "What a Party," McAuliffe describes golfing, vacationing and drinking with Bill Clinton (Clinton, Diet Coke; McAuliffe, beer). When Clinton delivered one of the most important speeches of his career -- to admit on national television that he had lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinski -- it was McAuliffe who called him afterward to say he came across as angry.
During last year's presidential primary, Clinton and McAuliffe talked almost daily, according to friends. Clinton is following McAuliffe's campaign closely, they said, but understands it will be up to McAuliffe to win the race.
"Terry has to close the deal," Carville said.
McAuliffe's friends and aides say he is determined to make the election about his accomplishments as a businessman, not as the former president's close adviser and chief fundraiser. "I think Terry is very determined this will be his race and a Virginia race," Begala said. "One of Clinton's laws of politics is elections are about the future, not the past, and I think that is how Terry will run his campaign."