By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
RICHMOND, April 27 -- Former President Bill Clinton rallied hundreds of Democrats downtown Monday, telling the crowd that his best friend Terry McAuliffe should be elected the next governor of Virginia to get the economy back on track.
"I'm telling you, in all the speeches I have made for other people, I have never campaigned for anybody who was better made for the moment . . . than Terry McAuliffe right now,'' Clinton said.
McAuliffe is facing R. Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran in the Democratic primary June 9. Both Deeds and Moran have extensive legislative experience and longstanding ties in local political circles. McAuliffe, by contrast, is a political newcomer to Virginia, but he brings to the campaign a long list of national Democratic contacts, starting with Clinton.
"The press says, 'Oh, well, Terry McAuliffe has raised millions of dollars for Bill Clinton. He has to show up.' And that's absolutely true," Clinton said. "But here's what I want to tell you: I am here today for reasons that go way, way beyond that."
Clinton said that he was "blown away" by the extent of McAuliffe's knowledge about state government and that his candidate will create jobs by pushing energy initiatives, including offshore wind turbines and the technology to turn chicken waste into a source of fuel.
A surprisingly small crowd, some wearing union T-shirts, gathered under the blazing sun at a farmers market, waving signs that read, "Energy Efficiency First!" and "New Energy for New Jobs."
Clinton's message at the morning rally was no surprise. But his appearance began to address one of the biggest questions about the Democratic primary: To what extent will McAuliffe make use of the former president, both to raise money and to generate crowds and media attention? The answer appears to be plenty.
Clinton made a surprise appearance at a New York fundraiser for McAuliffe this year and was the keynote speaker at the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in February. But this was his first trip to Virginia specifically to campaign for McAuliffe.
Democratic strategists say Clinton could be a strong advocate in helping McAuliffe win over the same working-class white voters who proved to be a major engine for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign. While in the White House, the former president was a powerful motivator in the black community, which is up for grabs in the governor's race. But it is unclear what the effect of the much-publicized friction with the Obama campaign during the 2008 presidential primaries will be.
Supporters in Richmond saved some of their loudest cheers for mentions of President Obama, including an African American teenager who stood on a bench yelling "Obama! Obama!" But there was no sign that the audience held campaign tensions between Obama and Clinton against the former president.
"We're beyond that stuff," said Bee Jackson, 45, a black supporter in the crowd.
"We've got to look forward," agreed Art Burton, 72, who became a McAuliffe fan a few months ago. "The stakes are too large."
Staff writer Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.