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Democrat a Mix of Showmanship, Political Savvy

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Few eighth-graders hire attorneys, but after the class rings didn't arrive at St. Ann's School in Syracuse, N.Y., there was Terry McAuliffe, ringing the doorbell of one of the area's most prominent litigators. That lawyer's son, Duke Kinney, remembers opening the door to find his friend and class president wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and asking, "Is Mr. Kinney home?"

"This guy thought he was messing with an eighth-grader, but he was messing with the wrong eighth-grader," Kinney recalled recently of the salesman, who eventually delivered the rings. "The next thing you know, this eighth-grader has a letter being served to this guy from the biggest law firm in Syracuse."

Among Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidates, McAuliffe, 52, has fallen into the easy description of carnival barker, shouting for one and all to come join the fun of creating jobs, embracing alternative energy and eliminating predatory lenders.

"Shut it down!" he yelled out the open window of his hybrid Chevy Tahoe one Saturday afternoon as it rolled past a payday loan office. "Nothing gets me more excited," he said afterward. "Chicken waste and payday loans, I get excited."

A few minutes later, he grabbed the phone from a volunteer at his Herndon campaign office and boomed: "Gloria, Terry McAuliffe, how you doing?" The two dozen people in the room hushed to hear him working a potential voter.

"Man, I love you, Gloria!" he said before turning to the crowd and declaring, "She's with us!"

Come one, come all. Come join the fun. Next to Gloria's name on the call sheet, McAuliffe scribbled, "Fired up," underlining it three times.

There is a certain amount of showmanship in any political race, but those who know McAuliffe best describe a man who was a barker before the political tents ever went up in Virginia. In his personal and professional life, McAuliffe has always talked louder, moved quicker and thought bigger than most of his peers.

While his friends labored as caddies, 14-year-old McAuliffe started a driveway paving business. When they shoveled snow, he bought a snow blower. In high school, McAuliffe clinched his place as student council president by having his friends dress as Secret Service agents, climb into golf carts and escort him into the gym to the tune of "Hail to the Chief."

"It was something that [the school] had never seen before," one of those friends, Marty Salanger, recalled recently. "That sealed the deal."

In many ways, the race to the June 9 primary among McAuliffe, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran is looking not unlike that gym. In speeches, the other candidates talk, and McAuliffe booms. Their signs sprout here and there; his bloom in clusters along major roadways. They speak about the environment; he holds events that require him to stand amid waste, wade through an algae pond and work on solar panels.

He is fond of telling the crowds that his campaign has opened 14 offices across the state, gathered more than 4,500 volunteers and made more than 550,000 phone calls -- statements that are usually followed with the words: "Incredible!" or "Unheard of!" or "Nobody has ever seen anything like this before!"

McAuliffe is undeniably a shot of espresso in a society that tends to take its coffee with cream. But those who know him well describe an energy and drive that stretches past politics. They say he is on even when the cameras are off.

The public is not "just seeing an act," former president Bill Clinton said. "That's who he is in every aspect of life that matters to him."

When the two recently appeared on stage together in Richmond, McAuliffe said Clinton asked him in a whisper which of them should speak first. The answer was clear moments later -- Clinton. When asked about it, Clinton said some candidates prefer that he speak last, "but Terry's got the confidence not to mind speaking behind me."

McAuliffe, who has been the Democratic Party's behind-the-scenes money man for decades, said he knew he would eventually run for office. But his decision to run for governor was solidified by the encouragement he received while campaigning around the state for Barack Obama in the months leading up to the 2008 election. Still, many question whether his initial allegiance to Hillary Clinton and his national, rather than local, political profile will hurt him.

McAuliffe, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is running against longtime Virginia politicians. Deeds grew up in the state, and Moran has spent the past two decades as a prosecutor and lawmaker in the area.

McAuliffe's personality could work against him if it comes off as too loud, too big, too much. He once wrestled an alligator for a political donation. Another time, he stopped off to give a speech while taking his wife and newborn child home from the hospital.

"Maybe it's my prejudice from being from Southwest Virginia, but I start out saying I'm for Deeds," said Richard Young, 68, a Roanoke native.

Young said this while standing outside his Arlington house, watching McAuliffe work on his roof. As part of his campaign, McAuliffe has toiled at jobs ranging from waiter to firefighter, and on that day, he decided to join a crew that was working on Young's solar heating system.

McAuliffe said Young should get state tax credits, in addition to federal ones, for his "green" efforts. He then did something Young hadn't expected: He worked. He went from the roof to the basement and stayed about three hours, long enough to make Young question his vote.

The other two candidates "deserve it more," Young said a few days later, but "McAuliffe has the potential to do a lot more."

"He came and he really stayed," Young added. "It wasn't just a photo op. That surprised me."

McAuliffe's father-in-law, Richard Swann, said he first saw McAuliffe's work ethic when the two raised funds for the Carter-Mondale campaign. Even now, he saves household tasks for times when McAuliffe visits because he knows McAuliffe gets restless "if his hands are idle for one minute."

Likewise, McAuliffe's traveling chief of staff, Justin Paschal, 34, who has worked for him for eight years, said McAuliffe never lets him see him sleep. "We come off the road and I want to die, crawl home," Paschal said. "He gets up and goes to two of his kids' games."

Dorothy McAuliffe said her husband might not make it to every rugby, lacrosse or soccer match, but when he is there, he is the father with the video camera, shouting out his children's names and embarrassing them. Dozens of photo albums fill the family's McLean house, each meticulously put together and labeled in his hand.

"He loves the thrill of the moment, no matter what the moment is," Dorothy McAuliffe said.

On the same day that McAuliffe saw the payday loan office and persuaded Gloria to vote for him, he encountered a vocal critic in front of his Centreville campaign office -- a growling Chihuahua. Ever the showman, McAuliffe barely paused before vowing, "That Chihuahua is going to be in my lap by the time I leave."

Come one, come all.

Inside, McAuliffe delivered his usual speech to the volunteers, flinging familiar sound bites such as, "I don't want my fair share, I want more than my fair share," and "You got to shoot for the moon if you're going to end up with the stars." But once outside, true to his word, he studied the temperamental pooch for a second and then scooped him into his arms.

"What did I tell you? What did I tell you?" McAuliffe barked. "Chihuahuas for Terry!"

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