By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009
RICHMOND, Feb. 7 -- The three Democratic candidates vying to be Virginia's next governor spoke to about 3,000 activists last night at the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, an event that kicks off the first seriously contested primary battle for governor since 1977.
Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) all said they were ready for a grueling campaign leading up to the June 9 primary, which will also feature Democratic contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Although this is his first run for elective office, McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, put on quite a show downtown before the dinner began: He brought in three busloads of supporters, and Richmond police shut down the street in front of the convention center so he and about 100 people could parade.
"I think you can see we are having a lot of fun in this campaign," said McAuliffe, who also bought 39 tables at about $2,500 each for the dinner.
During their speeches, the candidates addressed the dramatic gains Virginia Democrats made in the November election. Democrats now control both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of the U.S. House seats, and Virginia was vital to President Obama's winning strategy.
To celebrate the Democratic gains in Virginia, former president Bill Clinton delivered the keynote address.
"I understand you got a lot to celebrate tonight," said Clinton, who talked about the historic nature of Obama's inauguration. "I am profoundly honored to be in this state, which did so much to give birth to our nation and went Democratic for the first time in 44 years."
He later asked, "Don't you think Virginia is a lot more interesting place than it was 30 years ago?
"Come on -- if we had this dinner 30 years ago, most people here would look like me, gray-haired white guys in suits. . . . We have won the great culture war that has divided America for 40 years."
But Virginia Democrats face a formidable opponent as they try to keep their winning streak alive. Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who is running unopposed for his party's nomination, has raised more than $2 million and is expected to receive an avalanche of support from Republicans nationwide.
During his remarks, Moran sought to define the contest as one between two men with deep ties to Virginia politics -- him and Deeds -- and McAuliffe.
In a hard-hitting speech, Moran took repeated swipes at McAuliffe without mentioning him by name, suggesting that he was an outsider who would lead the party to defeat in November if he were the Democratic nominee.
"We must decide what our party stands for," Moran said. "Will our party be built from the bottom up or from the top down? Will our party be about public service or personal gain? Will our party be dominated by big money or those who raise it?
Moran's speech was the clearest signal to date that he plans to aggressively go after McAuliffe, a well-funded candidate who is already airing television ads in Richmond and Norfolk.
"We need a fighter, not a fundraiser," Moran said. "We need a governor who cares more about the family dinner table than the corporate boardroom."
McAuliffe, meanwhile, vows that he will not criticize Deeds or Moran during the primary campaign. He instead stressed his proposal to create jobs. He also made repeated attacks on McDonnell, saying he was too conservative for Virginia.
"My problem with Bob McDonnell is not that he's a Republican," McAuliffe said. "Bob McDonnell is a good man, but time and time again he has demonstrated that he has the wrong priorities for Virginia."
Deeds, who was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2005, used his speech to try to position himself as an alternative to McAuliffe and Moran.
"If you want a nominee who is part of that corporate CEO culture, then I'm not the candidate for you," said Deeds, who says he will fight for the middle class.
"If you want a nominee who is part of the partisan bickering that has paralyzed our nation for far too long, then I'm not your guy."