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Va. Governor: Can Moran Prevail Against McAuliffe's Cash?

In the Moran clan, the gospel teaches that politics is about relationships. For 12 years in the state capital, on endless trips across Virginia as leader of the Democratic caucus, Brian Moran built and nursed bonds with sheriffs and mayors and business owners, all leading to this moment, to his drive to succeed Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as the state's third consecutive Democratic governor.

Even if Republicans chuckled at the notion of a liberal from Northern Virginia winning statewide, Moran was ready. He positioned himself as the biggest environmentalist in the race, opposing a coal-fired power plant in southern Virginia, proposing wind and solar power mandates. He balanced that with stands for gun rights and the death penalty that, as he says with a big smile, "make some of my supporters cringe."

Then came Terry McAuliffe, former boss of the Democratic National Committee, the party's fundraiser-in-chief, who backed Hillary Clinton for president and, when that didn't work out, decided, hey, maybe it would be fun to run for governor of Virginia. After all, he lives in McLean.

So rather than persuading the rest of Virginia that an Alexandria progressive can relate to folks in tobacco and coal country, Moran is spending time four months before the Democratic primary trying to head off a cash-laden, nationally known opponent who's buddies with the TV pundits.

Although McAuliffe barely acknowledges the existence of his opponents, Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds from Bath County keep hitting the rich guy as a Virginia virgin, a Washington character more comfortable on cable than in the commonwealth's rural reaches and suburban cul-de-sacs. Moran is not a temperamental bulldog like his older brother, Alexandria congressman Jim Moran, but the younger sibling is honing zingers to deploy against McAuliffe.

"I won't spend time trying to find the office like certain of my opponents," Moran says. And this: "I'm afraid I haven't stumbled across him at the Fairfax chamber of commerce meetings." And this: "I'd be happy to go on 'Morning Joe' with Terry, but I've been on WINA in Charlottesville twice this week."

Moran argues that Deeds can't truly feel the pain of Northern Virginians because he's never lived the daily commute on the area's clogged highways, and that McAuliffe might know the local roads but lacks the Richmond experience that would allow him to navigate state government right off the bat.

The Moran brothers differ in personality, but they share a belief in government that came down to them from John Francis Xavier Moran and Agnes Dowd, their grandparents, who met on the boat from Ireland in 1901.

"They were Roosevelt Democrats because Roosevelt put people to work," Moran says. As captain of his high school football team in Massachusetts, Moran played in a stadium erected by the Depression-era Works Projects Administration, absorbing the lesson that in tough times, the state must build the people a foundation.

In Richmond, Moran was well-liked by Democrats and often held up by Republicans as a symbol of the cultural divide between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. With his New England vowels, big-city manner and liberal positions, he made an easy target for rural conservatives.

But Moran says he has developed relationships that will allow him to connect anywhere, even if his views are more Alexandria than Albemarle County. "I'm the youngest of seven and I've always found myself to be a decent mediator," he says. His wife has banned him from flying around the state, so he's taken to the "No Fuss Bus," a Chevy Uplander he picked up used; he has put 20,000 miles on it since last summer.

Despite nods to conservatives on guns and capital punishment, Moran says he won't play the Republicans' game of relying on social issues -- the old guns, gays and God routine -- to appeal to voters' emotions. "You run on issues that matter -- jobs, transportation and health care -- not the social issues," he says. So even if there is popular clamor to cut the number of out-of-state students admitted to Virginia colleges to create more slots for local kids, Moran says no: "The out-of-state kids help keep the cost of in-state tuition down."

Where his opponents reel off lists of roads they intend to build and programs they'll launch, Moran speaks more cautiously. "You're going to have to let the dust settle" from this economic storm, he says. "There's no capital market. Some things will have to wait."

As governor, he'd focus on education that leads to new jobs, such as the collaboration between Ikea and a community college in Danville that trains students to work at the furniture maker's local plant.

Moran rejects Republican rhetoric about Virginia holding onto a distinct culture of individual rights and suspicion of government. He believes his emphasis on work -- he tells voters about putting himself through law school by tending bar at Ramparts in Alexandria -- will set him apart from the guy who holds fundraisers on Park Avenue in Manhattan. "I've never even been on Park Avenue," Moran says, and then he stops. "I have to stop talking about Terry."

Second in a series on candidates for governor in Virginia.

By Marc Fisher |  February 8, 2009; 10:04 AM ET
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