By Tim Craig and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
When Terry McAuliffe entered the Democratic race for governor, his two opponents faced a pivotal decision: Keep their seats in the General Assembly, or quit to take on a man with no day job, an almost bottomless bank account and a best friend named Bill Clinton.
Brian Moran chose to leave the House of Delegates to campaign and raise money in hopes of keeping pace with McAuliffe. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) decided to stay. Each thinks his decision puts him in the best position for victory in the June 9 primary.
But both might have sacrificed, too. Moran gave up the limelight in Richmond to scrounge for coverage in local media markets while raising money and building a campaign strategy to hold off McAuliffe. Deeds had to halt his fundraising because it is prohibited during the 45-day session. He had to forgo a considerable amount of face time with voters. And he was left to try and distinguish himself in a venue where 140 lawmakers compete for attention.
Moran, who resigned as chair of the House Democratic caucus in December, explained his decision this way: "As important as the 45-day session is, the next four years are critically important to Virginia's future. The bottom line still exists: I'm fighting to move Virginia forward in the next four years, so the time spent out of session has been crucial to winning this election."
Deeds said he never considered giving up the seat he has held since 2001: "I guess I'm a little old-fashioned. I didn't think I could backtrack on that commitment."
The stakes are high for both men as they battle McAuliffe, a well-funded candidate who has hired 40 field organizers and launched TV ads in Richmond and Hampton Roads.
A look at the way Deeds and Moran spent one day late last month offers a window into what each gained or gave up by his decision.
Moran started his day behind a lectern at a Prince William County fire hall, speaking to about a dozen supporters who had come to watch him pick up the backing of local elected leaders. Although Moran appeared at times to be speaking to a room full of empty tables, the event was covered by a reporter from a county newspaper, giving the campaign the publicity it sought.
Democrats on the Board of County Supervisors praised Moran for being "grounded" in Virginia, a subtle swipe at McAuliffe, who only recently became involved in state politics. And Moran stressed that he was the Democrats' best hope for defeating Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee.
Ninety miles to the south at the state Capitol in Richmond, Deeds was taking his seat on the Senate floor.
Momentous legislation, such as a bill to impose Virginia's first statewide smoking ban and another to expand the use of the death penalty, came before the Senate, along with routine bills dealing with wastewater treatment regulations and a $3 fee for traffic violations to pay for courthouse renovations.
With the primary more than three months away, most political analysts say the nomination is up for grabs. In the coming weeks, however, many expect that one of the contenders will start lagging the others in public opinion polls, momentum and fundraising.
Given his expected money advantage, McAuliffe will almost certainly be a formidable candidate until the end of the primary campaign, said former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D). Deeds and Moran are trying to guarantee that they will also be viewed as top-tier candidates.
"This is eventually going to be a two-man race," Wilder said.
Since resigning from the House in December, Moran has fought hard to position himself as the natural alternative to McAuliffe.
Instead of being tied down in Richmond, Moran has spent almost every day this year on the campaign trail, including five days traveling through southwest Virginia last week. He has promoted a series of progressive issues, which he hoped would open sources of money and support.
He proposed mandating that 25 percent of the state's energy needs come from renewable sources by 2025 and suggested a ban on offshore oil drilling. He called for programs to guarantee that all children have health insurance and a law to give homeowners a 90-day reprieve before a foreclosed home is seized.
Moran also has announced endorsements from dozens of Democratic officials and activists. His advisers say support from party regulars will help overcome McAuliffe's financial edge. "The real benefit of leaving the legislature for Moran is it gave him the time to develop what is a very clear strategy for trying to win this race," said Robert D. Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst.
It remains unclear whether Moran's other reason for leaving the House -- to raise money -- has paid off. Finance reports are not due until April 15. Whatever money Moran is raising, it's more than Deeds has collected recently because of the ban imposed on state elected officials.
Deeds has hit the campaign trail on weekends. But most weekdays since Jan. 14, he has been on the Senate floor or in committee. The session has allowed Deeds to cement alliances with other lawmakers and has kept him in contact with advocates from across the state.
Instead of using his position to push for bold new policies to generate publicity, Deeds pursued low-profile bills aimed at specific interest groups, including a measure to help community college students obtain a four-year degree.
He took the lead on efforts to create more "green" jobs in Virginia. But his biggest focus was renewing his years-long push to establish a bipartisan commission to help draw legislative boundaries. After the bill passed the Senate, Deeds took his case to a House committee to plead for approval. He was not successful, but advocates took notice.
"Deeds has been a constant fighter for redistricting and one of our best allies on it," said Joseph Stanley, policy fellow for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
As the session concluded, Deeds said grappling with an unprecedented $3.7 billion budget gap was not something to be relished, but it had to be done.
"There were a lot of people who thought I was foolish," he said after the legislature adjourned. "There were tough decisions that had to be made, and I didn't step away from those decisions."
Still, Deeds's strategy had risks. When Moran unveiled his proposals to deal with home foreclosures Feb. 20 in Leesburg, the local paper published a story on its Web site that referenced only McAuliffe as Moran's rival. The story was updated to include Deeds later in the day.