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McAuliffe finds himself back in campaign mode for Hillary Clinton

The beginning of the 2016 campaign has thrust Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe back into a familiar role as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, with one appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and another scheduled this week in South Carolina.

Clinton’s campaign launch in Iowa last week was “spectacular,” McAuliffe said on the program, because “she got in the van” and talked to real people — just as he did, he said, when he won the governor’s mansion in 2013.

The buttoned-up interview was a far cry from the freewheeling cable news appearances McAuliffe made for Clinton in 2008, when he was co-chairman of her campaign and her most faithful advocate. His spokesman in the governor's office, Brian Coy, said the two appearances this week are not a signal that McAuliffe will be hitting the road regularly for high-profile surrogate work.

“He has lived that life,” Coy said. While McAuliffe will “certainly be helpful” in electing Clinton in Virginia, he said, “his full-time occupation is creating jobs here.”

As if to prove the point, McAuliffe seemed to pivot his remarks during the Sunday interview back to Virginia whenever he could.

McAuliffe suggested that Clinton could win Virginia, a key swing state, by following the same playbook he used: a mix of liberal social policies and business-oriented proposals. Asked about Republican attacks on Clinton, McAuliffe said the economy in Virginia was “booming” in part because “we have brought people together in a bipartisan way.”

He added: “And that’s what Hillary can do for this country.”

Such statements are unlikely to appease Republicans, who in 2009 seized on then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s role as President Obama’s Democratic National Committee chairman — criticizing him for taking on a partisan job and committing to an extensive travel schedule at the expense, they said, of his job leading state government.

State GOP leaders didn’t waste any time Sunday offering a similar critique of McAuliffe.

“We knew when he was running in 2013 that his main focus was being Hillary Clinton’s cheerleader,” said Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck. If McAuliffe is out helping Clinton, he said, the evidence of an “absentee governor” will quickly become apparent.

In what is an important election year in Virginia, Democrats will need McAuliffe’s attention as they turn to him to help them win back the state Senate, which Republicans control by just two seats.

Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he had no worries that McAuliffe will neglect his duties in Virginia. He also thought there would be little need for McAuliffe to stump for Clinton in other states, particularly since Virginia is a crucial swing state.

“She’s got advocates for her all over the country,” Surovell said. “I’m not sure she’s going to need him to go to Iowa or New Hampshire or anywhere else.”

Surovell said that staying focused on his gubernatorial record is the best thing McAuliffe can do for Clinton, since his popularity could help him sway voters her way.

While McAuliffe will speak Saturday at the South Carolina Democratic Convention, Coy promised that the governor would not be traveling much or become a regular talking head on television.

The "Meet the Press" appearance was a request, Coy said, and was the governor's first such appearance since he took office. McAuliffe has not pursued a leadership post in the Democratic Governors Association, focusing instead on a bipartisan gubernatorial group .

Hillary Clinton: Risk-avoider in chief

McAuliffe was selected in December to serve as vice chairman of the National Governors Association, setting him up to assume the role of chairman during the 2016 presidential contest.

A dual role is almost a tradition in Virginia, a swing state rich in both donors and voters. James S. Gilmore III was chairman of the Republican National Committee during his governorship. Robert F. McDonnell chaired the Republican Governors Association. His lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, was Mitt Romney’s state chairman in 2008 and 2012.

Mo Elleithee, a former Kaine strategist and now chief spokesman for the DNC, questioned the effectiveness of jabbing at that kind of behavior, noting that it wasn’t an issue for Kaine when he won his Senate race in 2012.

“I’ve never seen a worse use of money in politics than the amount of money the Republicans and the outside groups threw away on this attack line,” Elleithee said.

Still, McAuliffe is sure to face sharper barbs given his history as a fundraiser and campaign operative.

The governor also will be hard-pressed to avoid a multitude of questions, both personal and political, about the Democratic frontrunner, with whom he has been friends for decades. On Sunday, for instance, he defended Clinton's description of herself as "dead broke " after leaving the White House.

"I cannot tell you the distress in that family at that time," he said. With their legal bills, he said, the Clintons could not secure a mortgage — he helped them buy a $1.7 million house in suburban New York.

Dredging up McAuliffe's history with the Clintons could be a boon for Republicans, suggested veteran GOP consultant Chris LaCivita. It was McAuliffe who offered special White House access to Bill Clinton's top campaign contributors in the infamous "Lincoln Bedroom Memo ."

“Terry McAuliffe is a reminder to Virginians, at least from a historical perspective, of everything that’s wrong with the Clintons,” said LaCivita, who worked for McAuliffe’s opponent in 2013 and is now advising the presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I hope he continues to campaign for her. Hell, I’ll even set up the events.”

Jenna Portnoy and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.