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In Virginia, a Lack of Flash Can Be an Asset

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

The uncola.

It has been a few weeks since Democratic voters chose state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) as their nominee for governor. He will compete against former Republican attorney general Robert F. McDonnell in November. Deeds stomped two candidates who had run such vigorous and well-funded campaigns, some additional analysis is needed to understand how he managed to amass 50 percent of the vote June 9.

And one answer that hasn't gotten a ton of attention might just be that Deeds was the uncola. The anti-Terry.

Staff members for former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe insisted through Election Day and beyond that their internal polls had McAuliffe with high favorable ratings. For all the reasons their guy lost, the idea that voters just didn't like him was not among them, they have said.

Of course, the same aides had said their internal polls showed the race was a dead heat between McAuliffe and Deeds as late as a couple of hours before polls closed. Those numbers? Not quite right.

It was, in fact, not hard to spot voters who were giving McAuliffe less than perfect favorable ratings.

"He's not a Virginian. The guy is running 'cause he's bored. What's he ever ran? How does raising money for politicians make you qualified to be a politician?" a 66-year-old voter who would give only his first name, Ray, told a Post reporter at an elementary school in Arlington.

McAuliffe was too tied to "the Clinton machine," said Ron Fisher, 70, a retiree from Ballston voting at Washington-Lee High School.

Fred Lamb, a resident of Montclair in Prince William County, told a reporter that he knew McAuliffe had a lot of money but that he didn't believe McAuliffe could bring new and fresh ideas to the race.

Despite a well-run campaign, there is growing evidence that McAuliffe just never caught on with Virginians.

Maybe it was that people decided that despite 17 years domiciled in McLean, McAuliffe had spent too much time in New Hampshire and Iowa and Florida and too little time in Richmond. He hadn't earned the helm of a state government.

Maybe his pledge to shake things up in the capital city failed to sway Democrats, who have generally given Democratic governors Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine high marks.

Or maybe people just couldn't shake a vague distaste some voters felt for his association with the money-driven back office part of politics and his immodestly outsized personality.

Voters turned off by McAuliffe's razzle-dazzle seemed to have been looking for an alternative, and in the campaign's final days coalesced around Deeds instead of former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran.

And maybe that was partly because Deeds was the most un-McAuliffe candidate in the race.

McAuliffe once bragged to Virginia teachers that he appeared on the big cable news shows every night in 2001, battling President George W. Bush over his No Child Left Behind law.

Instead, voters chose Deeds, whose second appearance on national television came the Friday before the election.

While visiting with GM workers at an auto parts factory going out of business just outside of Fredericksburg, McAuliffe had to be reminded by an aide that he owns three, not two, GM SUVs.

Instead, voters went with Deeds, who kept driving his battered Ford Explorer even after hitting a bear that had lumbered into the road near his rural home last year. He finally abandoned the truck only a few weeks ago, after it sustained new damage in a fender-bender. It had more than 300,000 miles on it.

A former campaign operative himself, McAuliffe could rattle off key campaign stats any time he was asked: how many volunteers his campaign had attracted, how many doors they had knocked on, how many phone calls they had made.

Asked a few days before the election whether he could provide the same kind of intensely tracked numbers, Deeds laughed and acknowledged he could not.

"I've got people virtually in living rooms and dining rooms and kitchens, making calls over the state of Virginia," he said instead.

McAuliffe brought rappers Biz Markie and will.i.am into Virginia to endorse his effort. A few days before the election, he campaigned with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, head of the Democratic Governors Association.

Instead, voters selected Deeds. His response to McAuliffe's flashy nod from the DGA chief?

"Heck, if there's somebody from Montana who wants to get involved in my campaign, I want them to support me. They've got great trout fishing out there, wide open country."

Folksy as ever.

Just before the election, Deeds stopped by Arlington for a campaign event at the Clarendon metro station and then a local tavern. He emerged from the Metro stop to face a phalanx of cameras, not unlike the entourage that regularly followed McAuliffe. There, Deeds met up with state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), an early endorser of his effort.

Whipple was practically giddy about the growing momentum she was feeling for her candidate. She reported that a friend had called her that day to say she had been supporting Moran but had just put a Deeds sign in her yard. For some such folks, Whipple acknowledged, there was an anxiety about a possible McAuliffe win and a decision to make between Deeds and Moran over who could beat McDonnell.

"Virginia's never been one to elect flashy," she said.

Indeed.

Staff writers Jennifer Buske and Chris Jenkins contributed to this report.

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