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Virginia Democrats Ponder Effects of McAuliffe's Celebrity Campaign

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Just before Terry McAuliffe bounded onto the stage of an Arlington County nightclub Monday next to a hip-hop stars will.i.am and Biz Markie, a Richmond TV station aired a story about the coming primary, flashing pictures onscreen of the three Democrats running for governor of Virginia.

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There was McAuliffe, the inside-the-Beltway celebrity and former national party chairman made famous by his golf buddy, former president Bill Clinton. Next to him was a snapshot of little-known state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds. And then, former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran. Except it wasn't. The station accidentally displayed a photo of Moran's better-known brother, longtime U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).

The mix-up highlighted a significant complication that has become an almost daily annoyance for Deeds and Moran: How can two veteran local politicians compete with a candidate who has pop stars recording his robocalls and a former president with whom to barnstorm the state?

The challenge of running against a celebrity candidate is not new -- just ask Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who tried a variety of strategies to counter the enormous crowds and round-the-clock media entourage that followed Barack Obama across the country last year. But the problem is new in Virginia, where voters are still learning the names of two candidates and the third spent another day yesterday flanked by Clinton.

So far, Moran and Deeds have responded with a mix of humor and quiet confidence, insisting that a succession of star-studded events might work during a vast presidential campaign but could turn off the engaged activists who are likely to show up for a low-turnout primary. Both say they prefer low-key community events with local party chairs, mayors and state legislators who have endorsed their efforts.

"To me, it's a little risky," said Steve Jarding, Moran's senior strategist. "These are very discerning voters. I don't think they get wowed by that."

Deeds, who represents rural Bath County, has been working hard in Roanoke, Martinsville and Staunton, hopeful that Moran and McAuliffe will split votes in Northern Virginia and leave downstate up for grabs. Those areas might be immune to the charms of politically active celebrities.

"I feel a little hypocritical about this, because we're campaigning down here with the biggest celebrity around -- his name is Rick Boucher," joked Deeds campaign manager Joe Abbey, referring to the southwest Virginia Democratic congressman who has endorsed Deeds's effort. "That guy is Elvis down there."

Moran's supporters include the mayor of Richmond, where the TV station that bungled his photo got it right a day later.

A major challenge for Moran and Deeds will come in the fierce competition for the public's attention as the June 9 primary draws closer. During last year's presidential race, it was McCain who battled the rock-star fanfare of Obama's campaign. The Republican nominee attempted to turn Obama's advantage against him, running advertisements featuring footage of Paris Hilton and mocking Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world."

"There's a finite amount of oxygen in any room, and that holds true for politics," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist. "The more oxygen taken up by the better-known, well-funded, even famous candidate, the less oxygen there is for their opponent."

For McAuliffe, the big-name headliners have been drawing that oxygen in the form of buzz and free media attention, reminding voters that the primary is coming. The campaign is also hoping it will spark interest with young voters who were turned on to politics during last year's presidential election but have not been involved locally. McAuliffe is also reaching out to African Americans, a crucial constituency for the Democratic primary.


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