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Virginia Notebook: McAuliffe Muddles 09 Race

Tim Craig

RICHMOND- One month before Sen. Barack Obama selected Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe was speaking before the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.

During his speech, McAuliffe was "adamant" that Obama select Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine as his running mate, according to the Falls Church News-Press.

His comments generated national attention because McAuliffe had been a chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. What was one of Clinton's biggest supporters doing pushing Virginia's governor -- not his old boss -- for vice president?

Looking back, McAuliffe's comments might have been laying the groundwork for a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

The buzz surrounding McAuliffe, who lives in McLean, has been building since the Democratic National Convention.

After giving a fiery speech at a Virginia delegation breakfast, McAuliffe did not dissuade reporters from writing stories that he was interested in running for governor.

Two weeks ago, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews further fanned the speculation when he said on the air, without citing sources, that McAuliffe definitely was running.

On the show, McAuliffe's exploratory efforts appeared to get a quasi-endorsement from Kaine, who told Matthews he was "intrigued" by suggestions McAuliffe might run for governor.

Last week, a "Draft Terry" Web site appeared on the Internet. "Virginia's next Governor needs to put people first," the Web site states. "For nearly three decades, Terry McAuliffe has been promoting progressive values and helping Democrats win."

On Saturday, McAuliffe spoke at the fall meeting of the Virginia Democratic Party's State Central Committee after he requested the opportunity. Later in the day, McAuliffe spent several hours greeting Democratic activists at U.S. Senate candidate Mark R. Warner's annual pig roast.

Next week, McAuliffe plans to embark on a 30-locality tour of Virginia to promote Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. At one stop, McAuliffe will speak at a forum in Chesterfield County, where he will be the Democratic counter to former Republican governor and U.S. senator George Allen.

The growing indications that McAuliffe will enter the race have left a cloud of uncertainty over next year's fight for the Democratic nomination.

Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), an unsuccessful candidate for attorney general in 2005, have been laying the groundwork to run for governor since shortly after Kaine was inaugurated in 2006.

Deeds and Moran are raising money, wooing Democratic activists and building staffs. Those staffers have been drawing up plans for a campaign that would in part center on who is the more electable Democrat against Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the likely GOP nominee for governor.

McAuliffe, a wealthy retired businessman who became a Washington insider in the 1990s because of his close ties to President Bill Clinton, would change the race overnight.

During his tenure as chairman, McAuliffe raised tens of millions of dollars for the party. He also oversaw fundraising efforts for Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection. McAuliffe would bring that same fundraising prowess to a gubernatorial race, turning the contest into a pitched television advertising battle that would, given McAuliffe's profile, get a lot of media attention.

Unlike Deeds and Moran, McAuliffe might have little to lose by entering the race. Moran is giving up his House seat to make the run, meaning he will be out a job if he does not win.

Deeds doesn't have to give up his Senate seat to run for governor. But if he loses, he would have a hard time making another bid for higher office because he would have lost two consecutive statewide campaigns.

But Deeds would probably be the early front-runner in a three-way race for governor. Moran and McAuliffe are both from Northern Virginia, potentially splitting the vote in that region. Deeds would look to run up big vote totals downstate, where Moran's and McAuliffe's northern accents could prove a tough sell.

(Deeds staff members appear giddy over speculation McAuliffe will run; Moran staffers are a little uneasy.)

A McAuliffe candidacy holds the potential to shake up the race in other ways.

A three-way fight among white men might present the perfect opportunity for an African American or female candidate to jump in.

If one did -- and if he or she had access to personal wealth or an ability to raise money -- that could become a major factor in the race. When a black man and a woman were on the ballot for the Feb. 12 Democratic primary, African Americans made up 30 percent of the electorate and women made up 57 percent, according to exit polls.

A big unknown is what kind of reception McAuliffe would receive from Democratic activists and voters. Virginians have a history of skepticism about candidates who don't have broad ties to the state.

Although he is well versed on national issues, McAuliffe doesn't have a record of addressing Virginia issues. Moran , for example, has spent the past month unveiling his policies on the environment, government spending and public safety.

Some of McAuliffe's perceived personality flaws might also be a hurdle. Some Democrats say McAuliffe, a well-known presence on cable television news programs, might come across as too arrogant and rambunctious for a Virginia pol. But he would probably have the money to try to craft his own narrative to change some minds.

Most importantly, a McAuliffe bid would send a signal that the Virginia Democratic Party is maturing.

After taking a beating during the 1990s, the party has spent much of this decade focused on winning, allowing Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner (D) to redefine what it means to be a Virginia Democrat.

If McAuliffe ran, Deeds and Moran would have to scrap plans to battle over who was more electable. Instead, the Democratic race could turn into a knock-down fight over who best represents Democratic values, provoking a discussion that all strong families have to engage in at some point.

By Tim Craig  |  September 17, 2008; 5:27 PM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Brian J. Moran , Creigh Deeds , Terry McAuliffe , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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Don't forget that one of McAuliffe's last acts as DNC Chair was to invest $5,000,000 into Tim Kaine's 2005 race.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 18, 2008 12:40 AM | Report abuse

Ironic, isn't it? Terry McAuliffe was the leader of the democratic juggernaut that deterred Mark Warner from pursuing a presidential campaign. I guess they didn't read the landscape as well as they should have and and it appears McAuliffe's political instincts haven't improved with age. See NYTimes Sunday Magazine March 13, 2006 and Marc Fisher's column of the same date.

Posted by: Pat Kearns | September 18, 2008 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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