By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 15, 2009
I f the presidential race had gone his way, Terry McAuliffe says, he might be secretary of commerce now. "Jeez, I would have loved to be vice president," he muses. McAuliffe thinks big and acts even bigger.
Okay, so he picked the wrong horse for president, sticking with Hillary Rodham Clinton and shouting it out from coast to coast on cable TV night after night, even after the race was clearly over. Stuff happens. McAuliffe marches on. He's running for governor of Virginia now. (What? He has zero experience in state politics? This matters to you? "Honestly, nobody asks me about that," the candidate announces. "Nobody.")
He has rented an entire floor of a McLean office building as his campaign headquarters. We walk past about 40 empty cubicles to reach the man's corner office. Not to worry; McAuliffe intends to fill the place, just as soon as he raises a few more million from that dazzling list of boldface names in his BlackBerry.
In one of the most lampooned passages from his 2007 autobiography -- "What a Party!" a joyfully name-dropping celebration of the arts of schmoozing and political pocket-picking -- McAuliffe writes: "I was standing there having a casual conversation with King Juan Carlos, my occasional hunting partner, when we were joined by [former British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and his charming, outspoken wife, Cherie, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi."
These days, the names McAuliffe collects belong to the sheriff of Russell County, the council members down in Martinsville and the board members at the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
But the candidate brings the same verve to Virginia as he did when he was renting out the Lincoln Bedroom for Bill Clinton. Without missing a beat, he has traded down from debating Iraq policy and Iowa politics on CNN to scrambling to get on NewsChannel8 and into the Coalfield Progress to talk about turning Virginia's 500,000 tons of chicken waste into a biodiesel industry that would light up 40,000 homes and create thousands of jobs.
"I'm a pretty good salesman," he says. "I'm the eternal optimist. And I do love chicken waste."
McAuliffe paints himself as a potential cheerleader-in-chief, dipping into his barrelful of blarney to charm and cajole businesses into locating in Virginia. Just a couple of months ago, what he knew about the state consisted mainly of what he saw on his commute from McLean into the District. But he's a quick study, and he can now reel off stats on everything from stalled road projects to unemployment trends in Southside.
Still, to Democratic opponents Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds, and to many party activists, McAuliffe seems like an interloper, a guy with impressive political oomph but not necessarily someone with the local connections and serious enough mien to beat Republican Bob McDonnell come November.
Even as he pours money into this contest, dramatically changing the calculus for his opponents, McAuliffe has something of a take-me-or-leave-me attitude: Is he too brash, somehow not Virginian enough for a state where candidates almost universally pay homage to the amorphous notion of "Virginia values"? (Actually, three of the four candidates for governor were born in the North and went to college there; only Deeds is a native. Moran moved here to go to law school, McAuliffe moved here 18 years ago and McDonnell moved from Philadelphia as a very young child.)
"If I don't win, my life doesn't change one iota," McAuliffe says. So he's comfortable saying that the only way to ease traffic may well be to raise taxes. "Any politician who says we're going to build roads without talking about revenue is not being honest with you. What we're doing today doesn't work."
McAuliffe apologizes not in the slightest for his chutzpah or his cash. Moran and Deeds declare themselves appalled that McAuliffe holds fundraisers on Park Avenue.
McAuliffe doesn't miss a beat: "If I have the ability to raise money everywhere, that's great. I can build a grass-roots effort for all Democratic candidates around the commonwealth. Don't kid yourself: This is ground zero for the Republicans. If they're going to come back, it has to be here in Virginia. They're going to throw everything they have at this race, and we'd better have the resources to top them."
His whole effort shouts of money. The staff is an all-star team of Virginia campaign veterans. The bank account is so flush that McAuliffe has aired TV and radio ads in Hampton Roads, months before anyone expects election-weary voters to pay attention.
"I like to have fun," the candidate says, promising that he will not tone down his act for local consumption. "People want inspiration."
McAuliffe wants to tell me his plan for recruiting jobs to southwest Virginia, but two aides press him to get rid of the reporter and return to business.
"You have to get on the phone," one young staffer says.
"Money calls," the candidate says.
Third in a series on candidates for governor in Virginia.