By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
After two weeks jam-packed with debates, it is becoming increasingly clear that the three Democrats vying to become governor of Virginia do not differ dramatically in what they say. But how they say it is another matter.
Rarely have three political candidates so varied in manner shared the stage in a primary campaign. One is an unpolished country lawyer whose lack of varnish strikes some as admirably authentic and others as a sign that he is ill at ease. One is a fast-talking salesman who thinks big and talks bigger. And one is a Massachusetts-born former prosecutor who is careful with his words and at times forced with a smile.
"In an era of polling, they know what [issues are] going to play," said Jane Hamsher, founder of the Fire Dog Lake political blog, who watched the men up close as one of several debate moderators last week. "They've crafted their political message to conform to that, and there isn't a whole lot of difference. But a lot of the difference comes from personal style."
With a large number of voters undecided, questions of personal style could wind up being a decisive factor in the three-way primary.
For state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, success could hinge on whether his folksy Virginia style will appeal to suburban voters in Northern Virginia. For former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, the outcome could turn on his outsize personality and whether it will breed skepticism in the state's rural reaches. And for former delegate Brian Moran, survival could depend on whether he can continue to attack his opponents without turning off the electorate.
Deeds, McAuliffe and Moran will meet in one more debate May 19 before voters decide June 9 who will compete against Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the fall.
Deeds is the only candidate of the three who was born in Virginia, and he sounds it. His voice is marked with the gentle lilt of a childhood spent in rural Bath County -- and his accent is sometimes so thick that it trips up listeners.
"There was a bill that said that one who has a concealed carry permit and has gone through a criminal background check can carry that weapon into the rest'rant and not drink," he said when asked at a Richmond forum whether he supported allowing guns in bars. "I voted for that bill."
"Will you repeat that, please?" the questioner said, confused. "Going into a bar? You said, going to the restroom, what?"
"No," Deeds tried again. "I said, goin' to a rest'rant."
Deeds hunches his shoulders and leans into a microphone. He tugs at his shirt cuffs and sometimes stammers through his words.
But his memory about Virginia politics is long, and he speaks with passion about sometimes-wonky issues. At the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the party's annual fundraiser in February, the other Democrats made expensive glossy videos to introduce themselves to the crowd. Deeds brought two of his adult children to tell stories about him.
There is some irony in the fact that Deeds is the most experienced statewide candidate in the field. He came within 323 votes of beating McDonnell when the two competed for attorney general in 2005.
McAuliffe, by contrast, has an abundance of polish with none of the statewide experience. A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he carries with him the political celebrity of a man who is close friends with a former president and the television camera.
His voice booms so loudly that heads swivel when he enters a room. He speaks quickly, cramming in ideas, one on top of the other, and then breathlessly ending with a smile, as if to say, "You got all that?"
McAuliffe is always selling: himself, his plans and, he promises, Virginia. He says he will use those personal gifts to coax corporate executives to bring jobs to the state.
Those skills won McAuliffe the support of Randal J. Kirk, a billionaire who has given more than $600,000 to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and had also been approached by Deeds and Moran. During a three-hour lunch at Kirk's Radford home in October, the biotech investor, who sold greeting cards door-to-door at age 9, said he saw a bit of his own executive savvy in McAuliffe. He has contributed $106,000 so far.
McAuliffe "looks like the guy who wants to get you into a LeSabre," Hamsher said.
After 13 years in the House of Delegates, Brian Moran is a self-possessed insider who can enter a political rally knowing most of the audience. He spent long years as head of a Democratic caucus, showing up in far corners of the state to campaign for local Democrats whose odds of winning election were sometimes slim.
It's a fact he takes care to point out, singling out the local school board members, city council members and party bosses in every audience. Many have endorsed his candidacy.
"I've actually been and traveled on Route 58 many times -- in fact, my roommate Ward Armstrong doesn't let me forget about Route 58," Moran told a crowd in Danville last week, chuckling, when asked about his support for extending the long east-west highway along Virginia's southern border. Armstrong, a popular delegate from the area, shared quarters with Moran during General Assembly sessions.
Moran still speaks with a heavy Massachusetts accent that comes from growing up the youngest of seven children in the working-class town of Natick. His father was a probation officer, and he relies on his lean childhood to help build a narrative in which he stars as the underdog fighter, standing up for Virginia's unemployed against corporate interests.
Facing a fundraising juggernaut from McAuliffe, Moran has grown more serious and even biting on the trail. It's a stark contrast to the buoyant McAuliffe. It has left some voters wondering whether Moran is joyless, while others have seen a serious man for serious times -- better prepared to govern through adversity.
The three candidates will spend the next five weeks working to distinguish themselves on issues. But in the meantime, voters may study each man's temperament, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a communications professor at George Mason University.
"When you don't have the cues of partisanship and the policy differences tend to be pretty minimal, character can be the trump card," he said.
Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.