By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
R.Creigh Deeds planned to do something this week that no other statewide candidate in Virginia has done in the past decade.
Deeds, a state senator and one of three Democrats running for governor, was expected to skip the Shad Planking, a decades-old Virginia tradition to which politicians go to see and be seen.
Instead, Deeds planned to spend Wednesday on a seven-stop tour of southwest Virginia with the region's popular congressman, Rep. Rick Boucher (D), in an attempt to woo undecided voters.
"I'm sorry I'm going to miss it," Deeds said this week. "But you have to make choices."
Deeds's decision puzzled political insiders in Richmond and across the state because attending the Shad Planking is considered a must-do for statewide candidates of both parties.
Each year, political consultants debate whether the event merits the better part of a precious campaign day for their candidates. But each year, candidates attend.
About 2,000 people gather each April in a field in tiny Wakefield, about an hour southeast of Richmond, to chew on oily, bony fish smoked on wood planks over an open flame, listen to candidates' lighthearted speeches and trade political gossip. Candidates set up booths and dole out free beer, cigars and hot dogs.
The event began as a tribute to the start of fishing season but evolved into the state's premier political function. In recent years, the Shad Planking has come to symbolize a campaign's organizational strength and resources with candidates competing to put up thousands of signs in the surrounding area.
Deeds, who has been planning a run for governor for years, faces Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and former state delegate Brian Moran in the June 9 primary.
McAuliffe and Moran both planned to attended the Shad Planking, as did Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell.
Robert W. Bain, chairman of the Wakefield Ruritan Club, which has organized the event for 61 years, said Deeds is the first statewide candidate to decline an invitation to the Shad Planking since candidates were given speaking roles a decade ago. Bain said he is "extremely disappointed" with Deeds's last-minute cancellation because he had initially agreed to attend and allowed the Ruritan Club to promote his attendance.
"It's highly unusual," Bain said. "Let's see how his strategy plays out."
Almost immediately after Deeds announced last week that he would withdraw from the Shad Planking, political insiders began questioning his decision.
Some called Deeds's decision a smart move, saying he would influence more potential voters at events with Boucher in southwest Virginia than at the Shad Planking, largely attended by political activists who have already picked a candidate or are staying out of the primary.
Others said Deeds risked missing out on the media exposure and perpetuating a reputation that he is invisible in the three-way primary, in which McAuliffe and Moran have dominated the news. A DailyKos/Research 2000 poll last week showed Moran leading McAuliffe among likely voters, 24 percent to 19 percent, while Deeds had 16 percent.
Or maybe, some speculated, Deeds just learned a valuable lesson from previous joint appearances with McAuliffe, who has outshined his rivals in both organization and spirit at other events.
At the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in February, McAuliffe bought 39 tables at a cost of at least $2,500 each, hired a marching band for his arrival and rented out the top floor of a nightclub for an after-party.
At a St. Patrick's Day party hosted by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) in March, McAuliffe arranged for donors to purchase 400 tickets for his guests, staffed the party with 60 paid campaign workers and received the loudest cheers when he spoke to the crowd.
Moran's and Deeds's supporters have grumbled that McAuliffe, who has raised an impressive $5 million since November, is trying to buy the primary. McAuliffe had about $2.5 million in the bank at the end of March. Deeds had about $1.2 million and Moran had $825,000.
"Of course, campaign signs don't vote, but a good organization doesn't shy away from an opportunity to test its strength and learn from the test," McAuliffe spokeswoman Elisabeth Smith said.
Deeds, a lawyer from Bath County, one of the least populated parts of the state, has attended the Shad Planking several times and walks easily among some activists from rural Sussex County. He said he even enjoys the shad, which most attendees forgo. But he acknowledges he can't compete with McAuliffe's money.
"If this is about who puts up the most signs, I won't win," Deeds said.
McAuliffe and McDonnell were expected to have dozens of staff members at the event, many arriving at least a day early to start erecting thousands of signs. Deeds and Moran planned to skip putting up many signs, choosing instead to send a handful of staff members to pass out literature and beer. Moran staff members planned to play the song "Can't Buy Me Love" as a not-so-subtle jab at McAuliffe.
"This campaign won't be won by the candidate who fights for the most dollars; it will be the one that fights the most for Virginia," Moran campaign manager Andrew Roos said. "It's not about Hollywood glitz and signs; it's about hard work and Virginia leadership."