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Virginia Notebook: Putting The Squeeze on Moran

Tim Craig

Brian J. Moran's sudden decision to resign his House of Delegates seat is an indication he is starting to feel squeezed by his two rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) and Terry McAuliffe.

And being in the middle is the worst possible scenario for Moran as he prepares to campaign full time for a job he has been seeking since Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) took office in 2006.

Moran is emerging as the establishment candidate who faces well-financed McAuliffe on one side and Deeds, the underdog, on the other.

Moran hails from vote-rich Northern Virginia. After spending years wooing Democratic activists downstate, he could have made a strong argument that he is best positioned to fulfill the legacy of Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner.

In a two-way race against McAuliffe or Deeds, Moran very well might have been unstoppable. Given his controversial career on the national stage, McAuliffe might have struggled to convince a majority of Virginia Democrats that he was better suited than Moran to take on Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who will be the GOP nominee. Deeds's base might have been too small for him to prevail in a two-way race.

That's why, six months ago, when Deeds was the only other candidate eyeing the race, the Moran campaign was developing a front-runner strategy.

It staffed up early, spending more than $100,000 a month in salaries and expenses during the spring, and began lining up endorsements from business leaders and party activists.

Deeds appeared to be struggling to gain traction, a surprising predicament considering he was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2005. There was even widespread speculation this summer that Moran could force Deeds from the race.

But then McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, burst onto the Virginia political scene in late summer and began scoping out his own bid for governor.

If McAuliffe jumps in, there will suddenly be paths for all three candidates to get the 33.4 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination.

Moran could win by amassing a coalition of traditional Democrats who vote in statewide primaries and African Americans.

Deeds could get there with a combination of rural Democrats, African Americans and voters who question whether Moran or McAuliffe, both born north of the Mason-Dixon line, are authentic Virginians.

McAuliffe could win with a combination of Northern Virginia Democrats who traditionally vote in federal but not state races, wealthy voters drawn to his business background, African Americans and younger voters.

Since McAuliffe first signaled at the Democratic National Convention in Denver that he was considering entering the race, Moran and his campaign team have appeared as though they were working their way through the seven stages of grief.

(Shock. Denial. Bargaining. Guilt. Anger. Depression. Acceptance.)

Or, as state Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) put it in an interview last week, Moran is "freaked out."

Saslaw was referring to Moran's decision to give up his House seat. Indeed, the Moran campaign has been a tad erratic.

Six weeks ago, Moran was widely expected serve in the coming legislative session but not seek reelection to the House because he was running for governor. A month ago, Moran indicated he was considering running for governor and reelection to the House simultaneously.

Moran's staff said Democrats in Alexandria asked him to run for both jobs so there would not be a contested nomination fight for the House seat.

On Friday, Moran decided that not only would he not seek reelection, he was also resigning immediately to focus on his campaign, giving Alexandria Democrats only 100 hours to select a nominee to replace him.

Moran's resignation appears to be a direct result of McAuliffe's potential candidacy. Had he stayed in the House, Moran would not have been able to raise money during the 45-day legislative session and would have had to cast tough votes on how to cut the budget.

With his vast national Rolodex, McAuliffe could amass a record fortune for a Virginia primary campaign if he decides to enter the race. McAuliffe plans to announce his decision Jan. 7.

Deeds, who plans to remain in the Senate, admitted that he will probably be the least well funded, although he said he will have enough money to get his message out.

The next round of campaign finance reports is not due until next month, but Moran had $1.million in the bank as of June 30. Given his rate of spending in the spring, Moran would have had to have raised at least $600,000 since June 30 just to maintain his balance.

Excluding transfers and in-kind contributions, Moran raised $922,000 from Jan. 1 to June 30. That was before the presidential and congressional races soaked up a lot of Democratic money this year, before the economy slid deeper into recession and before McAuliffe began wooing Moran's Virginia donors.

A lot will change when the campaign really gears up in mid-spring, but some Democrats are starting to draw parallels between Moran's situation and the one that faced Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) during the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination last winter.

In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Clinton was the clear front-runner for the nomination, but she suddenly found herself sandwiched between then-Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards.

Obama went on to win the Iowa caucuses with 37 percent of the vote, which propelled him toward the nomination.

As was the case with Clinton last year, Moran is raking in the endorsements but seems uncertain on how to engage his two opponents without being vulnerable to charges he is turning too negative too quickly.

While Deeds and McAuliffe remain animated in interviews and on the campaign trail, Moran at times appears tense and scripted. And some Democrats are starting to grumble that Moran's staff members treat them poorly if they hesitate to get behind his campaign, which was a common complaint about the Clinton campaign.

But there is still plenty of time for Moran to right his campaign.

That's assuming Moran has finally reached the last stage of grief: acceptance that he's going to be locked in a tough three-way race for the nomination.

By Tim Craig  |  December 17, 2008; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Brian J. Moran , Tim Craig  
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Next: Moran Picks Up Hampton Roads Support


I think it would have been appropriate to mention that Saslaw has endorsed Deeds. It makes me wonder how many of the unnamed "some Democrats" are also Deeds supporters, and whether his campaign is avoiding the appearance of negative campaigning in public by having supporters fuel the Moran/McAuliffe fight with anonymous statements through the press.

Posted by: jimeh | December 17, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Many Dems agree with Saslaw, and Deeds is appearing more like someone staying out of the fray. Moran can't raise as much as McAuliffe and he obviously played the resignation of his seat in an incredibly poor fashion. Brian knew he was running for governor. He's been campaigning for years down state and basically not representing the 46th district anyway. In other words, he should've resigned months ago or at least finished out his term in 2009.

Like many Dems, I am awaiting the announcement from Terry McAuliffe!

Posted by: UVANick | December 18, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

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