In this image from 2003, Ed Gillespie (left), then the chair of the Republican National Committee, spars with Terry McAuliffe (right), then the chair of the Democratic National Committee, on “Meet the Press.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is not running for reelection, but voters may think otherwise given the ferocity of the attacks between him and Republican Ed Gillespie as the race to govern Virginia enters its final days.

"Despicable" and "infuriating" were words Gillespie chose to scold the Democratic governor for canceling a meeting with some sheriffs after several endorsed the Republican over McAuliffe's handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

And there was McAuliffe, accusing Gillespie of running "the most hateful, racist, bigoted campaign I've ever seen."

Virginia's gubernatorial race is a reunion of sorts for McAuliffe and Gillespie, who as Democratic and Republican party chairs in the early 2000s were Washington's version of the "Bickering Bickersons," a regular towel-snapping duet on network talk shows before graduating to lucrative joint appearances on the lecture circuit.

Theirs was a made-in-Washington bromance, a blend of partisan sniping and backslapping bonhomie marinated in network green rooms and mediated by the city's political marriage counselors — Wolf Blitzer, George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert.


Ed Gillespie, left, and Terry Mcauliffe. (LEFT: Pete Marovich For The Washington Post and RIGHT: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/LEFT: Pete Marovich For The Washington Post and RIGHT: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Their similarities were as obvious as their differences — both Catholic University grads, authors of "insider" political memoirs, pals of presidents and party bosses. If they appeared to get huffy beneath the bright lights — "Outrageous!" they told each other responding to this or that charge — all was forgotten before their next gig, when they wrangled over the virtues and failings of President George W. Bush or Vice President Richard B. Cheney or President Barack Obama.

"I have a love-hate relationship with Terry McAuliffe — I love the guy and I hate myself for it," Gillespie told a 2012 forum, bursting into laughter as McAuliffe patted his arm affectionately.

The National League of Cities paid $31,000 for their 45-minute rendition of the Ed & Terry Show, an NLC spokeswoman said.

"Not only were they operatives and insiders, but they were playing almost caricature versions of insiders," said Walter Shapiro, the venerable political columnist who has covered 10 presidential campaigns and has a firsthand understanding of green room rituals.

"If you're a campaign strategist or a party official who spends half their life on cable television, you're spending half your time with members of the other party," Shapiro said. "This incestuousness is what people outside Washington hate about Washington because it suggests a big game."

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Futures, legacies on the ropes

The game Gillespie and McAuliffe are playing now is far more serious, one in which Gillespie's political future — and the governor's legacy — are in question.

For much of the campaign, the two men hardly referred to each other. But in the closing weeks, as the candidates' ads and mailings have grown nastier and polls show a close race, Gillespie and McAuliffe have become less restrained.

The governor is putting his full weight behind Northam, portraying his opponent — a man he once referred to as "my great friend Eddie Gillespie" — as an extremist and President Trump's tool. "We must not surrender Virginia to Ed Gillespie and his hateful, Trumpist, fearmongering allies," the governor wrote in a recent fundraising plea.

Polls show McAuliffe's approval ratings above 50 percent as he enters his final weeks in office, barred by Virginia law from seeking reelection. Yet Gillespie may believe that battering the governor will "motivate core conservative voters," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. "Among hard-core Republicans, attacking McAuliffe is a good message."

For months, Gillespie has argued that Virginia's economy is "stuck — and has been for the past six years," a fact he blames on what he brands as the "McAuliffe-Northam" administration.

Gillespie has criticized McAuliffe for "vetoing more legislation than any governor in the history of the commonwealth," as he told Republicans at a picnic in September. "I've never seen a governor in any state of either party bragging about what he or she did not get done for the people they were elected to serve."

McAuliffe has pitched himself as a "brick wall" against the Republican-controlled legislature's attempts to restrict abortion and push through other social-issue bills favored by conservatives.

More recently, Gillespie's campaign released a commercial attacking McAuliffe for restoring felons' rights, a centerpiece initiative the governor often touts but which the Republican ad derided for "making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries."

Gillespie also has criticized the "McAuliffe-Northam" administration for canceling a meeting with the Virginia Sheriffs' Association after members endorsed the Republican. "It's despicable, it's reprehensible," Gillespie said at a campaign stop.

In a subsequent interview, Gillespie stood by his characterization, although he added that he was not personally attacking the governor. "I didn't call him despicable," he said. Asked about their long-standing relationship, Gillespie suggested that it was the result of their political roles.

"We obviously did the shows together, and we come from similar backgrounds — he's a little more outgoing, I guess, than I am," he said. "I don't hate people who disagree with me. I don't hate Ralph Northam."

As for attacking McAuliffe's economic record, Gillespie said his criticism is grounded in "data points."

"I'm not running him down," he said. "I'm saying we've got a problem in Virginia we've got to fix."

McAuliffe, who declined to be interviewed, seizes on opportunities to link Gillespie to the president, who is widely disliked in the state, writing in one fundraising appeal: "We can't give Donald Trump a leg up here in Virginia. We don't need a GOP yes-man like Ed Gillespie leading our state."

In a radio interview, the governor mocked Gillespie for not campaigning alongside Trump.

"Ed is treating Donald Trump like he's some kind of leper," McAuliffe told radio host John Fredericks. "Eddie Gillespie won't even bring Trump in to campaign for him — it's just baffling."

McAuliffe predicted in the interview that Gillespie, as governor, would sign "horribly, socially divisive" legislation that would discourage corporations from opening in Virginia. "You can kiss Amazon goodbye," McAuliffe said of the online retail giant that is searching the East Coast for a second headquarters. (Its owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)

Years of dueling

The sparring between Gillespie and McAuliffe began more than a decade ago when they were party chairmen, chairs of the RNC and DNC, respectively, and acted as chief surrogates during the 2004 presidential campaign.

"We've got a good one for you this morning," Bob Schieffer promised as he opened "Face the Nation" one Sunday that year. "At the same table — and it's live — Chairman Terry McAuliffe of the Democratic National Committee and Ed Gillespie."

Moments later, after McAuliffe raised questions about Bush's military service, Gillespie shot back: "It's reprehensible, I have to say, sitting right here with Terry, for him to willfully lie on national television about the president's record."

"In case you missed it, you were just called a liar, Mr. McAuliffe," Schieffer said.

"The facts are what they are," McAuliffe replied.

On "Meet the Press" that year, Gillespie suggested that Democrats would use the judicial system to "subvert the will of the voters," predicting that "activist, liberal" judges would "impose their decision on the electorate."

It was McAuliffe's turn for indignation: "I just want to be clear — Ed said something which is just absolutely outrageous."

For all their dueling, the two men could be found chortling together, as was chronicled before a vice-presidential debate by a New York Times reporter who found them "fresh from a snappish joint encounter on cable television," enjoying "a snack and a roar of laughter."

McAuliffe "is a much nicer guy in person than he comes across on television," Gillespie wrote in his 2006 memoir, "Winning Right." McAuliffe, he wrote, "used to joke that he spent more time with me in 2004 than he spent with his wife. We were constantly in studios together." Gillespie compared their relationship to "the sheepdog and the coyote in the cartoons. We'd beat the hell out of each other when we were on the clock but got along fine when we punched out."

Their banter became part of their shtick, as was evident when Stephanopoulos moderated a 2004 debate between them at Catholic University, where they had graduated two decades earlier, though a few years apart.

Referring to the shuttering of the campus bar, Gillespie said as the debate began, "You know, Terry, if they had closed the Ratt when we were here, we could've graduated summa cum laude."

"I did," McAuliffe said, not missing a beat.

After stints as party chairs, Gillespie and McAuliffe were represented by the Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau, which booked them for joint engagements — a "top dog Democrat and Republican, going at it for entertainment's sake and 50 grand a pop," according to author Mark Leibovich's "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital."

Introducing them at a 2010 U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum, Morton Kondracke, the journalist who was their moderator, warned that the audience would "get a false impression of Washington" because McAuliffe and Gillespie "actually laugh together."

After McAuliffe mistakenly praised Bush when he meant President Bill Clinton during their appearance, Gillespie gently corrected him.

"I'm here to help, buddy," Gillespie said, cackling.

When they appeared together, Gillespie played the straight man while McAuliffe could be outlandish, eliciting laughs when he said during more than one public forum that he often predicted Democrats' victory on "Meet the Press" because he couldn't, as party chair, admit "We're going to get our asses kicked, stay home."

At a 2012 U.S. Global Leadership Campaign forum, Gillespie laughed as McAuliffe mocked Trump's demand that Obama release his school records. "Donald Trump wants to see what his grades were, I think. Oh, heck — Eddie and I don't want our grades out either in high school."

At another forum, Gillespie described Hillary Clinton as "every bit as smart as her husband, every bit as political as her husband — and she might be just a little meaner than him."

McAuliffe leaned in to suggest a different adjective.

"Tougher, Ed," he said. "Tougher."

By 2012, a year before McAuliffe's election as governor, the men touted their relationship as an alternative to the vitriol engulfing Washington.

"Terry and I couldn't agree on a stopped clock — what time it is — but we're pretty good friends," Gillespie told the National League of Cities forum. "My teenage daughter calls him my 'Frenemy.' "

"Politics has become way too personal," McAuliffe added. "Get out of this negativity, this fighting back and forth."

Five years later, as he sought to stop Gillespie from following him in the governor's mansion, McAuliffe reflected on their relationship.

"Ed has been a good friend," McAuliffe told the National Journal over the summer. "You'd probably kill him by writing that."