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Got Campaign Withdrawal Pangs? Virginia To The Rescue

Terry McAuliffe is a master fundraiser, a schmoozer of the first order, a TV regular. "The Macker," an ebullient vacuum cleaner of the wallets and bank accounts of Democratic fat cats, was Bill Clinton's chief moneyman, a party chairman with a knack for an impossible task -- making people feel squeaky clean about diving into the murky world of political campaign contributions.

But now McAuliffe wants to be governor of Virginia, a job that has more to do with repairing roads and managing prisons than it does with sweet-talking Hollywood moguls and spinning the loudmouths on CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

Is Virginia ready for a governor whose appearances on the cable TV shoutfests included one in which he wore a Hawaiian shirt while swinging a bottle of Bacardi Gold and yukking it up with the hosts? Or, to put it another way, could a state in a grim budget situation use a chief executive who once wrestled a 280-pound alligator to land a $15,000 donation from a Florida Indian tribe?

The commonwealth is hardly averse to a bit of showmanship in its governors; nobody ever accused Doug Wilder or George Allen of being overly sedate.

But the blurring of lines between media and politics in recent years has led too many power-seeking personalities to confuse national TV celebrity with the home-grown political support that translates into electoral victories. Ask Oliver North, who is not a U.S. senator from Virginia, or Michael Steele, who is not a U.S. Senator from Maryland, or Al Franken, who is unlikely to become a U.S. senator from Minnesota.

"To the extent that people do recognize Terry from television, they see he is a great advocate and a great optimist," says Mo Elleithee, the veteran Virginia campaign strategist who has signed up to be McAuliffe's Sherpa.

Outsiders and nontraditional candidates can get to the Senate, especially if they are well grounded in national issues (see Webb, Jim). But governors work in more prosaic fields. The good ones know every major intersection in their state, can talk about individual schools in dozens of counties and understand the economies of vastly different regions.

That's especially the case in Virginia. George Allen is a walking encyclopedia of Virginia gas stations. As self-serving as Mark Warner's enthusiasm for NASCAR may have seemed, he was not just a rich guy from Connecticut by way of Alexandria who suddenly discovered an abiding interest in things Virginian.

Before Warner first ran for office in 1996, challenging John Warner for his Senate seat, the cellphone magnate served as Virginia's Democratic chairman, traversing the state handing out favors and helping to fund campaigns. He had also been a campaign strategist and fundraiser for Wilder. But most important, he spent years seeding job-generating projects in the state's rural south, earning him lasting support in areas that generally don't look kindly on Democrats.

"Mark understood the power of culture and became a champion of the culture," wrote the architect of Warner's rural strategy, Mudcat Saunders. "Today in rural Virginia, Mark Warner can draw a crowd quicker than Tim McGraw."

Whereas "Terry McAuliffe doesn't know Norton from Norfolk," as Tucker Martin, spokesman for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, told The Washington Post when word surfaced about a possible McAuliffe candidacy. "If he runs, remind me to send him a Virginia state map."

McAuliffe isn't a carpetbagger like Hillary Clinton, who didn't know Elmira from Elmont before she sought to represent New York in the Senate.

He has lived in McLean for a couple of decades. (Though the last time his name was bandied about by the Great Mentioner, the talk was about him running for the Senate from Florida, where he's done a lot of his real estate investing over the years -- deals that he'll have to be more forthcoming about over the course of a campaign.)

Already, McAuliffe is boning up on the back roads and back stories of Virginia. That process began over the past few months, as he crisscrossed the state, campaigning for Barack Obama and congressional candidates.

McAuliffe's opponents in the June Democratic primary, Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria and state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, portray their deep-pocketed rival as someone who just doesn't know Virginia that well. McAuliffe will return the favor by painting his opposition as nice little legislators who are too embedded in the Richmond culture to see the big picture (it's the Virginia version of that campaign oldie but goodie, running against Washington).

And Elleithee says his man is the only Democrat who has the stature, breadth and resources to stand up against McDonnell, who is "the strongest statewide candidate the Republicans have put up since George Allen in 2000."

While the rest of the country suffers from political withdrawal pangs or celebrates freedom from candidates' TV ads, Virginia's campaign never ends; the '09 election season is in full bloom.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  November 13, 2008; 9:23 AM ET
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