His young aides could hardly keep up as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) strode through the U.S. Capitol.
“Anybody from Virginia?” he boomed at a startled group of tourists.
“Barney Frank!” he greeted a familiar bearded figure. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”
He shook hands with a tour guide, told a Belgian family to “spend every dime you’ve got in Virginia” and buttonholed Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to whisper about a bill.
“Appreciate it, buddy,” McAuliffe said as he broke away. “See? A good Republican senator. I get along with everybody.”
In the hallowed heart of American politics, hosting a group of governors from across the nation, McAuliffe managed to stand out as an alpha politician. He could out-sound-bite, out-glad-hand and simply outlast almost all the big-league professionals around him.
“If he wasn’t so shy and retiring, he might make something of himself,” Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) deadpanned. “If you stay in a hotel with him, you don’t have to set your alarm.”
McAuliffe enters his last year in office, prohibited by the Virginia Constitution from serving a consecutive term, with his future unclear. Virginia is right where he likes it, in the spotlight, with the race to replace him this year drawing national attention as a referendum on the Trump presidency.
But McAuliffe is vague about his plans — including whether he is considering a presidential bid in four years. It is still a long way off, of course, but McAuliffe has gained national stature after years in the background as the Clinton family’s fixer and fundraiser.
McAuliffe was in Washington as chairman of the National Governors Association, which held its winter meeting here. In typical fashion, he showered the gathering with superlatives. The 46 governors who attended were “a record number.” The session on child hunger was the “first ever” to feature both governors and their spouses in a joint session.
And in the atrium of the J.W. Marriott hotel, McAuliffe gestured broadly at the welcome message beamed onto the huge wall, three stories high, with his name and that of Vice Chairman Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.).
“I mean, lookit,” McAuliffe said. “Lights! Virginia!”
McAuliffe gets praise from his fellow governors for his leadership of the group, which tends to stress common issues and play down party divisions.
“I think he’s doing an outstanding job,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). “He brings an incredible amount of energy to it. He is balanced in his presentation. He understands the dynamics and, I think, has been a good unifying force at the NGA. Obviously there are differences of opinion on some key issues, but he knows how to navigate that well.”
Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) cited a health-care analysis presented to the governors on Saturday as one of McAuliffe’s successes as NGA chair. The report predicted that many Americans would lose health-care coverage and that the changes could cost states billions.
“I think he’s spectacular because under his leadership, the National Governors Association exposed the tremendous damage that ‘Trump Care’ would do … Whatever else he has done, that’s a signal accomplishment.”
McAuliffe spent much of the weekend giving television interviews, making speeches and leading conversations with members of the Trump administration. He said it was all part of throwing himself into the task at hand and not a warm-up for national aspirations.
But he would not rule out a presidential run, either.
“I have no intentions of doing it,” he said. “But would I dismiss it out of hand? Of course not. I don’t dismiss anything out of hand. I mean, goodness gracious . . . I’d like to be the pope. I’d like to replace Tom Brady, too, you know, as quarterback of the Patriots. . . . I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m really focused . . . on doing this and loving the job as governor.”
The prospect is not lost on some of his colleagues. Malloy, of Connecticut, smiled at the early speculation.
“I think there are going to be a lot of Democratic candidates in the race,” he said. “We’re only a month into the presidency, and people are already lining up. . . . Clearly he’s qualified to run, should he decide to. But I think there are a lot of Democrats putting their toe into the water.”
Hutchinson, a Republican, gave a wry smile. “I think he would be incredibly successful in any business he’d like to get into,” he said, emphasizing the word “business.”
While McAuliffe has aggressively criticized the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and stepped-up immigration enforcement, he spent much of the weekend making Virginia’s case with the president.
On Sunday, McAuliffe held a private, 45-minute meeting with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, then came out and said the retired general had assured him that immigration agents would not conduct random raids or arrest people unless they were involved in criminal activity.
McAuliffe took that message to a presidential dinner Sunday night, where he spent most of the evening by Trump’s side.
“I’ve known him a long time,” McAuliffe said Monday. “The guy I saw at dinner last night is the guy I’ve known. You know, he and I talked most of the dinner, just the two of us; we were at the table together. And we talked about everything. I’ve golfed with him many times, dinner, we talked about old stuff. And he got up in front of everybody and said, ‘This is my good friend.’ ”
Trump praised McAuliffe at the dinner. “Now I know it’s inappropriate, but I’d like to ask a friend of mine — I’ve just destroyed his political career — from the other side, a man from Virginia, I’ve known him a long time, and he’s a very good guy, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to come up and also, perhaps, make a toast,” Trump said, as seen in a video clip from the event.
Their friendship, McAuliffe said, gives him leeway to push back when issues arise that he is concerned about. He described buttonholing Trump and Vice President Pence to make a case for building more aircraft carriers at Newport News Shipbuilding.
McAuliffe presents his tales of dinnertime schmoozing as evidence of his dealmaking on behalf of the state, not as the roots of a bid for higher office. Either way, he made a strong case that he was having the most fun of all the governors at the NGA meeting.
As a group of governors ran late for a media briefing, the grand hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building fell silent but for a few reporters typing on laptops.
Suddenly, out in the hall, there was a commotion. “Hey, everybody!” a voice thundered, followed by laughter and chatter.
“What was that?” someone said in the back of the media room.
“Uh,” said another voice, “McAuliffe. Terry McAuliffe — shrinking violet.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.