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Surrogate Mud-Slinging in Virginia Governor's Race

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Virginia's unemployment rate jumped to 7 percent in February, the highest since 1992, but what's the Republican Governors Association doing as they pump $1.2 million into their man Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor? They're busy yukking it up over the sleaziness of Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe, his longtime fundraiser turned Democratic candidate for governor.

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The Republican governors group's latest tactic is billandterry.org, a Web site that depicts the former president as an Obama-bashing, money- hungry, ethical slime who has come to Virginia to pay back McAuliffe, who is pictured in goofy party glasses and dubbed "Two-Faced Terry."

Virginia's average commuting time is 26.9 minutes, sixth highest in the United States, but what's the Democratic Governors Association doing with $100,000 of the money it's pouring into the Virginia race? They're giving it to an effort called Common Sense Virginia, whose Web site shows McDonnell as leader of a squinty-eyed Gang of Seven, including radio talk host Rush Limbaugh, televangelist Pat Robertson, former senator George "Macaca" Allen and ex-president George W. Bush.

The masters of these sleaze-by-association campaigns are, of course, imports -- as unfamiliar with Virginia and its concerns as are the out-of-state donors who have ponied up two-thirds of McDonnell's war chest and 82 percent of McAuliffe's.

Yoni Cohen, for example, is the public face of Common Sense Virginia, the supposedly independent political action committee behind the Gang of Seven site, as well as ads in Martha Stewart Living, Oxygen and other media aimed at women that focus on McDonnell's firm stance against abortion. Cohen is a Bostonian and former Capitol Hill staffer, a nationally renowned expert on college basketball who got his start in politics working on Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004.

Like many of the campaign professionals who have airlifted into Virginia for the biggest political contest of the year, Cohen needn't bother with the particulars of the state's problems -- you know, the job a governor actually performs. The fact that, say, Virginia's high school graduation rate is in the bottom half of the nation, ranked 30th among states at 74.5 percent, doesn't bubble to the surface when it's so much more fun to come up with clever ways to slop McDonnell, Robertson and Limbaugh into the same muck pile.

"The more Virginians, and especially Virginia women, hear about Bob McDonnell, the less appealing he is," Cohen says. "It's not just that he's affiliated with Robertson, but that he has stood with Robertson on issue after issue."

The Republicans seem happy enough to join their rivals in focusing the governor's race on such pressing state issues as the role of evangelism in public life and a lusty series of exchanges over who is slimier. Mike Schrimpf, the Republican Governors Association's point man on the Virginia race (from his office in the District), is quite proud of the latest effort to marry McAuliffe and Clinton in voters' minds.

"Terry gives us a lot to work with," he says, chuckling. "We're really highlighting the shady business associates Terry McAuliffe had."

Curiously, Schrimpf argues that it's "the national media that's really elevated the race to the national level," not the political parties with their millions of dollars, their heavy calendar of visits by national surrogates, their ads emphasizing comical irrelevancies, and their relentless focus on the kind of atmospherics best suited to cable TV "news" shout-fests.

"If you ask people in Roanoke how they choose their candidates, it has a lot more to do with local issues," Schrimpf says.

Agreed. Yet Schrimpf's campaign Web site -- it says "Paid for by the Republican Governors Association" at the bottom -- barely mentions Virginia, let alone the fact that nearly 300,000 Virginians are out of work, up 27,000 from January to February alone.

The Republican group so far has aimed its fire almost exclusively at McAuliffe, even though it's another Democrat, Alexandria's Brian Moran, who is leading in the polls ahead of the party's June 9 primary. But maybe Moran and the other Democrat in the race, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, just aren't as much fun to attack. After all, those two candidates have raised their more modest campaign accounts from people who actually live in Virginia -- both can boast that more than 90 percent of their money comes from in-state sources.

"We're not targeting any candidate more than any other," Schrimpf protests. "But Terry McAuliffe is giving us the best material." Another chuckle.

The two sides in the governor's race are churning out some pretty entertaining stuff. Funny, though -- the folks out at the unemployment centers just aren't laughing. Lousy sense of humor, probably.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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